Student protestors opposing media monopolization in Taiwan began the year by issuing a public declaration that read, in part: “…We are here today to call the public’s attention to an unavoidable problem! How do we resolve the problem of China meddling with our media, as media freedom and diversity is one of the most important aspects of a democracy? ….With Taiwan’s precarious international position, the problem [of media monopolization] is even more serious and pressing. The Chinese government is attempting to manipulate information to influence Taiwan’s public opinion and to obliterate sovereignty through the purchasing of Taiwan’s media outlets through consortiums friendly to China!”
The students are deeply concerned by the Want Wang China Times Group’s plan to acquire some of the cable TV stations owned by the China Network System (CNS) and the NT$ 17.5 billion (USD $600 million) deal to sell the Next Media Group— owned by Beijing-critic Jimmy Lai— to two consortia of powerful Taiwanese business leaders with large financial stakes and business operations in China.
Media ownership has therefore become a major issue of concern for this generation of Taiwanese university students, all of whom grew up under democracy. They are particularly worried by Want Want China Times Group chairman Tsai Eng-meng and his aggressive acquisition of media outlets in Taiwan. Tsai has attempted to directly shape public opinion through his purchases, and his critics contend that he consistently echoes the views of Beijing. In an interview with the Washington Post, Tsai said he is eagerly awaiting the day when Taiwan unifies with China.
Tsai has been accused of interfering with editorial matters, such as firing a China Times newspaper editor who published an article calling China’s top negotiator on Taiwan, the Chairman of Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chen Yun-lin, as “third rate.” Furthermore, Taiwan's Commonwealth Magazine reported that “Want Want Monthly,” an internal publication of the Want Want Group, described a visit between Tsai Eng-meng and PRC’s Taiwan Affair’s Office Minister, Wang Yi, after Tsai acquired the China Times Group. Tsai allegedly told Wang that his goal was to utilize the power of the media to improve Cross-Strait relations. Wang Yi reportedly answered that the Taiwan Affairs office would assist the Want Want China Times Group in any way possible, even beyond helping Tsai to expand his business holdings in China.
Yao-wen Hsieh, a graduate student from the National Yang Ming University, articulated the reason for the large student turnout at these protests: “Freedom of thought and expression is a cornerstone of democracy…. Now China is using self-interested conglomerates to violate our precious freedom." Similar concerns also compelled political science graduate student Chung-Ning Chen to join the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement. The Soochow University student asserts that “China’s final goal is to use any kind of influence to force us to accept that there is no alternative other than unification, and the media in Taiwan is the latest political tool China is attempting to utilize to manipulate… the way we think and to diminish our [sense of] national identity.”
Young Taiwanese were at the forefront of the movement to liberalize and democratize Taiwan. Generations of social activists have also focused upon the issues of media freedom and media diversification. However, instead of advocating for the basic right to expression and freedom of the press, the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement reflects the deepening and maturity of Taiwan’s democracy. The youth-led movement, and especially its New Year’s Eve Rally at Liberty Square, seeks to safeguard existing democratic institutions and practices as well as reject the efforts of a foreign authoritarian government to manipulate information and public opinion in Taiwan for political gain.
Support in Taiwan for immediate or eventual unification with China continues to dwindle, from almost 20% in 1994 to 10.4% in 2012, while support for immediate or eventual independence has nearly doubled during the same period, from 11.1% to 19.9%. Such trends may make it more difficult for China to manipulate Taiwanese public opinion to favor unification, even as China-friendly tycoons move forward to expand their media acquisitions.
Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou stated that his government will continue to safeguard and defend media freedom, reiterating the content of the country’s human rights report. The legislature has also taken up the issue. The Democratic Progressive Party proposed three amendmentsto the Radio and Television Act (廣播電視法), the Satellite Broadcasting Act (衛星廣播電視法) and the Cable Television Act (有線電視法), which if passed ultimately hinder the acquisition of Next Media outlets. The ruling Chinese Nationalist Party initially supported the amendments before backtracking less than a day later.
Meanwhile, the student activists maintain that responsibility for safeguarding freedom also rests with the Taiwanese people. Phoan AHim, a student at Tainan College of Theology and Seminary, who has woken up on multiple occasions at 3am to travel to Taipei to support the movement, said, “As Taiwanese, we have to survive in the midst of great powers. If we don’t protect our democracy and freedom, then who will? If we don’t do it now, when are we going to do it? If Taiwanese don’t fight for Taiwan, no one will.
Ketty Chen is a visiting scholar at the National Taiwan University. Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and China Power contributor.