Wild Strawberries

The past week has witnessed the appearance of the Wild Strawberries Student Movement (野草莓學運; see website), formed in the aftermath of state attempts to curtail peaceful expressions of free speech during the visit of ARATS Chairman Chen Yunlin 陳雲林. These actions prompted over 200 students to launch a sit-in outside the Executive Yuan, and after being evicted from their original location the students transferred the sit-in to Liberty Plaza (自由廣場). They have received petitions of support from over 500 university professors, while other sit-ins have been staged throughout the island.

At this point in time, the movement's goals include: 1) Apologies from President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九 and Premier Liu Chao-shiuan 劉兆玄; 2) The resignations of National Police Agency Director-General Wang Cho-chiun 王卓鈞 and National Security Bureau Director-General Tsai Chao-ming 蔡朝明; 3) Amending the Parade and Assembly Law (集會遊行法) by removing an article that obliges rally organizers to apply for police approval prior to staging an event.

The students have had to cope with a wide range of "tests", including bad weather, midterms, convincing politcal figures not to take part, and coping with the occasional oddball trying to take advantage of the sit-in to make her or his own statement. Whether this movement will be as successful as the Wild Lily Student Movement (野百合學運) of the 1990s remains to be seen. The number of participants has been relatively low, but both the ruling and opposition parties have responded positively to the possibility of amending the Parade and Assembly Law. However, there has as yet been no response to student insistence on apologies and resignations. Student protests have always been a thorn in side of Chinese governments, be they imperial dynasties, authoritarian states, or democracies; it will be interesting to see how things progress.

In other news...

1. An 80 year-old former KMT party member attempted self-immolation near the sit-in to protest heavy-handed police actions against protesters carrying the ROC flag at sites Chen Yunlin was visiting. He is hanging on to life in the Taiwan University Hospital ICU.

2. Former President Chen Shuibian 陳水扁 has been placed in detention following 6 hours of questioning at the prosecutor's office and a marathon 11-hour detention hearing interrupted by a trip to the hospital to investigate Chen's claims that he had been roughed up by court bailiffs (doctors determined that he had only suffered a minor muscle tear). The hearing concluded with the judges voting 2-1 in favor of detention on grounds that Chen might tamper with evidence against him.

This action marks the temporary conclusion of a formal investigation into allegations of corruption by Chen that began on May 20, the date of Ma's inauguration. He is now the tenth person being detained in connection with the case. As Chen was led out from the prosecutor's office, he put his handcuffed hands in the air and shouted "Political persecution! Long live Taiwan!" He has only drunk water during first day of his detention, which suggests that he may be initiating a hunger strike.

3. Yunlin County Commissioner Su Chih-fen 蘇治芬 is persisting with a hunger strike to protest her detention on charges of corruption. She is now being kept alive through a court-ordered IV drip. For a moving letter she wrote to her son, click here.

Here are some aspects of what penal detention in Taiwan entails: up to four months confinement in a small cell with just one hour of exercise per day, a rectal examination each time one re-enters the cell block (to prevent the smuggling of contraband), etc...all without having been formally indicted, not to mention convicted of a crime. To be clear: for centuries (if not millennia) corruption has been a scourge of civilization. Politicians guilty of such crimes deserve to be locked up in a dank and dark dungeon...but only following a conviction resulting from a fair trial. One should also note that while corruption cases in Taiwan have been quite common over the years, it is relatively rare for accused politicians to be subjected to detention. There are increasing fears that Taiwan's reputation as being governed by the rule of law is being eroded, and it might be worth considering this recent comment by AIT Director Stephen M. Young (楊甦棣): "The only thing I would say (about the Chen case) is that not only Taiwan, but your friends around the world would be watching the process very closely. And we believe it needs to be transparent, fair and impartial."

Like the student sit-ins, protests against the above-mentioned detentions have been relatively limited in size (celebrations over Chen's detention have also been muted). Some people may be disgusted by the moral decline of DPP politicians, while others may be intimidated by recent wave of detentions. All in all, however, it seems that most people are just too busy trying to make ends meet to engage in acts of protest. However, recent events have led to a sense of sorrow and frustration...and only six months after the new government was sworn in. Let us hope for a brighter future.

Note: In the interests of sustaining a harmonious blogosphere, all references to Taiwan as a country or nation have been omitted from this post.


J said...

"For a harmonious blogging environment..." Some Chinese complain and you have to bow to their wishes? Would you do the same if I complained about semantics?

Paul R Katz said...

If you contact me, I'll explain

janice said...

Wow, who needs CCP censors if writers all over the free world are willingly implementing self-censorship? Who needs a police state when self-policing is so much more efficient?

Other than that, great post, I really appreciate seeing your periodic reports from Taiwan in this space.

J said...

How can I contact you? Sorry, I looked all over the website, and I can't for the life of me figure it out!

The China Beat said...


Please send your contact info to thechinabeat@gmail.com and I'll forward it to Paul Katz.


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.

Michael said...

Dr. Katz's posts certainly focus attention on some interesting developments in Taiwan right now. They bring to mind a few questions and comments.

1. As far as I know, investigations into President Chen Shui-bian's allegedly illegal activities, as well as those of his inner circle and family members, began while he was still in office. To what extent could the current detentions of him and other DPP politicians be attributed to judicial processes set in motion before the KMT won the presidential election in March, and to what extent to KMT persecution?

2. I apologize if Dr. Katz has already addressed this issue in a previous post, but could he discuss the precise nature of the charges against President Chen, and his opinion of their merits?

3. Thinking broadly of other fairly recent examples in Asia, the charges being leveled at Chen Shui-bian bring to mind similar charges brought against Suharto in Indonesia and Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo in Korea after they left office. In the case of Korea (with which I am slightly more familiar), the prosecution of these political figures does not seem to have been motivated by a desire for retribution but rather constituted part of the process of democratization and increasing transparency. The upshot, at least in Korea, has been more openness and democracy. Could it be possible to think of the current imbroglio in Taiwan as part of the democratization process that has also unfolded elsewhere in Asia, especially considering that Taiwan has now managed to hold successful elections that have seen the peaceful transfer of power from the KMT to the DPP and back to the KMT again? This last point is ironic in many ways, given the KMT's record of oppression, but I suppose what I am asking is whether there might be a silver lining in all of this in the sense that as messy as all this is, Taiwan might actually come out of this more firmly committed to democracy and not less?

Carlos said...

Michael, it is certainly a good sign for democracy that corruption is now investigated and punished. But in this case there are a few things that make us worry.

There have been eight or nine arrests recently and they've all been DPP members. Many, including Chen Shui-Bian, haven't been charged with anything yet - they're being held under old laws that allow detention without due process for up to two months (incommunicado to boot), renewable to a total of four months. Also in Chen's case, the prosecutors promised to the media that they would convict him or resign in shame. You could say they're being transparent about their motivations. Maybe it's not a clear pattern yet, but it's getting there.

The China Beat said...

janice posted the following comment to the blog, but for some reason it isn't showing up. I'm re-posting it here:

Michael, I am not Dr. Katz, but I will try to answer your questions.

1. The fact that prosecutors began their investigation of the Chen family and their associates while he was still in office does not tell us much because many prosecutors were appointed well before he assumed office, and in general the KMT still retains widespread influence over the judicial system.

2. Former president Chen is being accused of embezzling money from a "state affairs fund," which is a discretionary pool of money that has been available to ROC presidents over the past 50 years and is meant to be used for highly secretive diplomatic missions. Jerome Keating has a detailed, if somewhat lengthy explanation here (see #5). In brief, there have never been any rules governing the use of these funds. Do I think that the providing unaccountable slush funds to government officials at all levels are a good thing in a democratic society? No, especially when, let's face it, "diplomatic missions" for Taiwan basically means buying allies in Central America. But those diplomatic practices, like the slush funds, were legacies of the KMT's authoritarian past. There is simply no good reason why Chen should take the fall for this widespread practice when there were no preexisting rules to be followed.

The situation may be somewhat confusing because there were various other scandals that have swirled around Chen: a couple of years ago, his son-in-law was convicted of insider trading and received a jail sentence, and in August of this year Chen admitted that his wife had wired millions of dollars of leftover campaign funds to overseas bank accounts. This last count, while a heinous betrayal of his party and supporters, under the law technically amounts to a tax evasion offense that merits a $10,000 fine, not detention. Though prosecutors seem to have made the prejudgment that there is a definite link between these overseas transfers and the state affairs fund, they still can't seem to come up with enough evidence to even enter an indictment even after months of questioning witnesses and combing through seized documents.

3. The issue is not really whether combating corruption in the abstract is healthy for democratic consolidation and government accountability -- of course it is, and neither the DPP nor its supporters have ever claimed otherwise. The real problem is the apparently unequal application of existing laws and procedures in the pursuit of these investigations. There are several longstanding corruption allegations against KMT heavyweights like Lien Chan and James Soong that have mysteriously languished in the prosecutors' office, literally for years. But when it comes to allegations against members of the DPP, they seem awfully quick to make use of the pretrial detention option, which under Taiwan's criminal procedure code is only supposed to be applied when there is a serious risk that the suspect will 1) flee, or 2) tamper with evidence, and there are no less intrusive ways to mitigate those risks. Prior to being detained, Chen had shown up for at least 5 separate questioning sessions; all of his "co-conspirators" are now detained, so there is nobody left to "collude" with, and one would think that he would have tampered with the evidence long ago if he intended to do so. But those are exactly the grounds on which they have justified the detention without charge. I have yet to hear an explanation, on the other hand, of why they felt it necessary to handcuff him while taking him into custody, when he was surrounded by scores of policemen and guards. Proportionality in the exercise of force by the state is a basic principle in all major legal systems, but I fail to see the proportionality in either of those decisions.

Granted, part of the challenge here is that none of the available indications clear-cut. All we have to go on are patterns visible from the outside, and only a very close observer of criminal investigations in Taiwan would be able to discern whether this recent round of detentions is out of the ordinary. But political influence can easily undermine judicial independence through crevices of discretion that are built into the system, like the setting of investigative "priorities" for a prosecutor's office or the determination of whether someone is a "serious" flight risk. Due to the wide-open media and information environment, we are not yet at the point where people are being detained on a completely arbitrary basis. But without structural checks to preserve the integrity of the process, it would be very easy for whoever is in power to exploit every marginally-plausible charge of corruption to eliminate their political opponents.

The sad thing (for Taiwan, at least), is that the conviction of a former president through a fair and open proceeding, with full protection of his due process rights including the presumption of innocence, would have been a great victory for Taiwan's democracy. The use of these draconian methods have only created further divisions within Taiwan's society and served Chen Shui-bian's personal interest in becoming a martyr to the Taiwan Independence cause. Now that confidence in the integrity of the judicial system has been broken, a significant segment of Taiwanese citizens will have trouble accepting the result of this investigation as legitimate, regardless of how it turns out.

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.