Today I saw Taiwan’s future, and I saw its past. Nearly two weeks after the Sunflower Movement occupied the Legislative Yuan in Taipei to protest a controversial services trade pact with China, hundreds of very different people answered a call from a pro-unification gangster to “retake” the legislature, sparking several clashes and showing which side history is with.
First, let’s look at the future. They are the tens of thousands of people nationwide who have joined the Sunflower Movement to express their opposition to the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which critics say was negotiated in secret and was never properly reviewed by the legislative branch and civil society (which was for the most part was excluded from the process). Since its signing in Shanghai in June 2013, opponents of the pact have raised fears about its impact on the island’s services industry and of the political consequences of opening several sectors — from construction to telecommunications — to investment by an authoritarian regime that does not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty.
The Sunflower Movement, which held a successful protest on March 30, attracting about 350,000 people, came into being following several months of government unwillingness to take input from critics into account. For many months prior to the current impasse, one of the main precursor groups, the Black Island Youth Alliance, had held peaceful protests and information sessions across the country, but was not allowed to attend the public hearings organized by the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).
While the CSSTA became the catalyst for the events of March 18 and the occupation a week later of the Executive Yuan, the principal cause of the snowballing protests is growing disillusionment with government institutions that Taiwanese feel have failed them and now operate for the sole benefit of a narrow few on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
The movement, a student-led organization, has received support from numerous prominent academics, lawyers, and NGOs. Although it has found common cause with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in opposing the pact, the movement has operated independently of the party. (Prior to the crisis, its members often accused the DPP of ignoring them, and civil society in general.) Tellingly, the Sunflower Movement is comprised of individuals from all of Taiwan’s ethnic groups, a healthy departure from longstanding party politics on the island. Furthermore, its principal ideology is an amalgam of economic pragmatism and “civic nationalism.” Despite what their detractors are claiming, its members have studied the contents of the trade pact very closely and could hold their own in any debate on the matter. The leadership comes from the nation’s top universities and includes the rich and the poor, KMT and DPP voters, and many who are not of voting age. Two of the movement’s young leaders, Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, have demonstrated extraordinary oratory skills and have performed brilliantly under tremendous stress, media scrutiny, or when debating top government officials.
A quick walk around the site is sufficient to realize that the legislative compound has turned into a giant open-air classroom, where subjects from economics to democracy are taught and debated amid live musical performances and an ocean of banners, posters, and placards. The scene is orderly and includes numerous chemical toilets, Internet spots, medical clinics, pharmacies, food services, temporary living quarters, and even a hairdresser. Trash is promptly collected, and crowd control is efficient (frustratingly so for journalists who want to snoop around). Inside the legislature, students have created a virtual media center providing commentary in several languages and live video via Internet platforms, such as Facebook.
Despite a few hiccups, such as the occupation of the Executive Yuan on March 24-25, which led to a muscular — and not uncontroversial — crackdown by riot police, the public has rallied behind the young protesters and their demands, with 63 percent of the public wanting the pact be scrapped and renegotiated. For his part, President Ma Ying-jeou, whose popularity stands at about 9 percent, has refused to meet the movement’s demands and, according to some observers, has acted with growing authoritarianism.
Taiwanese youth have demonstrated that on issues that matter to their lives and way of life, they are fully capable of standing up to the authorities, putting to rest the belief that they are apolitical pushovers whom Beijing could buy off with the latest iPhone. Above all, they have driven home the reality that on matters that directly pertain to cross-strait relations, Beijing can be completely powerless to influence developments in Taiwan.
As the crisis deepens, President Ma has grown increasingly powerless and isolated. The divide between the many factions within his party has become starker and could eventually result in pressure for him to make the necessary concessions to defuse the crisis, which would be a major blow to his reputation in Beijing. Already, the crisis has probably spelled the end of any future pacts with China between now and 2016, when Ma must step down.
But some people won’t accept that. Enter the past, which manifested itself on April 1 with a counter-protest organized by Chang An-le, or “White Wolf,” a gangster who returned to Taiwan in June 2013 after seventeen years in exile. Chang, leader of the Unification Party, is believed by many to be an instrument of United Front work for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who tirelessly advocates for “peaceful unification” under the “one country, two systems” model used for Hong Kong — a model that is failing to work in the former British colony, as is increasingly evident.
Since his release on bail on the day of his arrival, Chang has appeared on TV talk shows (where he fared rather poorly), opened campaign offices nationwide, and has announced his interest in fielding candidates in future elections, with himself as a possibility for the 2016 presidential election. Besides playing the politician, Chang has also turned to the old practices of the Bamboo Union triad, which he reportedly once headed, to threaten and intimidate various sectors of society, including NGOs, a city mayor, and the Dalai Lama.
On March 31, the White Wolf announced during a press conference held with representatives of a hitherto unknown workers’ union that the following day he would assemble 2,000 followers to “retake” the legislature from the students. By 1:30pm the next day, it was obvious that Chang would not get those numbers. In all, about 500 people showed up, who may or may not have accepted the NT$500 (US$16.50) he is reported to have offered them to join. From the crowd, which gathered under the watchful eye of about 500 police officers and the media, it was evident that those counter-protestors were not Taiwan’s future. The average age of half of them was about 65, while the other half comprised young individuals who this reporter believed to be associated with organized crime; many of them bore the hallmark tattoos, and their eyes were glazed over from the betel nut they were chewing on. A number of them probably belonged to a pro-unification group that for months has rallied in front of the Taipei 101 skyscraper, where they wave Republic of China (ROC) and People’s Republic of China (PRC) flags to the applause of hundreds of Chinese tourists. Some of them have been seen accepting small donations from Chinese citizens.
The contrast with the students on the other side of the barricade could not be starker. After Chang materialized and climbed on top of a small truck, the ex-convict once again demonstrated that he has no future as an electable politician. His attacks on the DPP and his insolent remarks as he got impatient with the Sunflower Movement facing him behind the police lines also highlighted his inability to understand democratic politics — likely the result of having spent seventeen years in China brushing elbows with CCP officials. Wang Puchen and Lin Ming-cheng, two individuals who took turns speaking atop the vehicle, also showed that if it ever came to a debate with the young leaders of the Sunflower Movement, they would fare very poorly indeed.
The several clashes that occurred over the afternoon (a few protesters used pepper spray, of which this writer had a lungful) demonstrated the lack of discipline among Chang’s betel nut- and nicotine-high people. On several occasions they launched themselves at the supporters of the Sunflower Movement who were taunting them, only to be pushed back by police, which on this day, and facing difficult circumstances, performed brilliantly.
Besides highlighting his poor political skills and antiquated methods, Chang may also have caused yet another blow to President Ma, whose government has, for reasons unknown, allowed a former most-wanted criminal out on bail to involve himself in politics and to threaten society. While there is no direct evidence that Ma is using Chang as a proxy (though Ma’s sister Ma Yi-nan did meet Chang during a campaign event in February 2008 for Ma’s presidential bid), the involvement of organized crime will inevitably fuel speculation that the KMT is once again calling upon the triads to help with its dirty work, which was a real problem under former presidents Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo.
Twice already, Chang’s people have harassed the activists gathered at the legislature, threatening them with knives, firecrackers, and improvised bombs. While his disastrous outing may have sealed his fate in politics, Chang is not to be underestimated. As Taiwan’s “most educated” gangster (he completed two college degrees while serving time in a U.S. prison), the White Wolf is a proud man with solid connections within the CCP, and perhaps some alliances with the KMT. And his willingness to use violence should not be ignored.
In the end, the successful occupation of the legislature and the unruly riposte by the underworld should dispel any notion that the unification of Taiwan with China on non-coercive terms is still an option. Future Taiwanese leaders, many of whom are currently inside the legislature, have made it clear that they will not countenance the silent takeover of their country and its hard-won democracy. If President Ma cannot force a simple services trade pact upon his people over fears of its political consequences, we can only imagine what the reaction would be if he, or whoever comes after him, tried to enter into political negotiations with Beijing.