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Despite Protests, Taiwan’s KMT, TPP Pass Controversial Bills to Expand Legislative Powers

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Despite Protests, Taiwan’s KMT, TPP Pass Controversial Bills to Expand Legislative Powers

Up to 100,000 people turned out in protests against the bills, which will expand the power of Taiwan’s opposition-controlled legislature. 

Despite Protests, Taiwan’s KMT, TPP Pass Controversial Bills to Expand Legislative Powers

A protester holds a poster with a slogan, ” No Discussion, No Democracy,” outside of the legislative building in Taipei, Taiwan, May 28, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

After protests that mobilized tens of thousands, controversial laws in Taiwan that will expand the powers of the legislature have passed their third reading. The bills were pushed for by the Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), who together have a majority of seats in the Legislative Yuan. Now the Lai administration must decide how to handle a major political controversy of a scale not seen since the 2014 Sunflower Movement – all in the first week of taking office. 

The demonstrations began in the late night hours of May 17, with outrage from young protesters after legislators from Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), including popular disinformation expert Puma Shen, were injured in scuffling with KMT legislators. Protests of a few hundred grew to 30,000, according to organizers, on May 21, one day after President Lai Ching-te was sworn into office. On May 24, 100,000 took to the streets around the legislature in what was termed the “Bluebird Movement.” Another 70,000 demonstrated on May 28, with other protests planned in 15 cities in Taiwan and overseas solidarity actions occurring in the U.S., U.K., and Europe. Yet the protesters were not able to prevent the contested laws from passing.

The demonstrations were organized by a coalition of 50 civil society groups, some of which date back to the period of Taiwan’s democratization, and many of which were involved in the Sunflower Movement a decade prior. There were a number of ways in which the “Bluebird Movement” proved a replay of the Sunflower Movement, as a largely youth-driven protest, now involving a generation 10 years younger that had not been old enough to participate in the Sunflower Movement. The Bluebird Movement took the form of a series of demonstrations on days the laws were discussed in the legislature, rather than repeating the Sunflower Movement’s month-long continuous occupation of the legislature by student activists. 

As with its predecessor movement, social media played a large role in mobilizing protesters, this time via Meta’s newer Threads platform. Protest organizers attributed this to Threads’ providing the ability to reach broader demographics than normal social media “echo chambers” in terms of its algorithm. 

The Bluebird Movement was highly conscious of its relation to previous student movements in Taiwan, with sunflowers and lilies – referencing not only the 2014 Sunflower Movement but the 1990 Wild Lily Movement that had played a pivotal role in Taiwan’s democratization – becoming symbols of the incipient movement. The name “bluebird” derived from the street next to the Taiwanese legislature, where the protests were centered, Qingdao East Road. Qingdao (青島) and the word for “bluebird” (青鳥) are visually similar when written in Chinese characters.  

The laws that sparked the protests will grant new powers to legislators, allowing them to summon individuals for questioning, whether that means company executives, government workers, civil society leaders, or regular citizens. Although the specifics of the laws have changed several times, concerns have been raised regarding the possibility that the new powers will be used for show trials or political coercion, as the laws call for jail terms or fines as penalties for lying.

For example, civil society groups raised the possibility of legislators who have holdings in specific industries using the new powers to force trade secrets out of competitors. Likewise, an open letter signed by experts – including two former directors of the United States’ de facto embassy in Taiwan, the American Institute in Taiwan – raised concerns about military secrets being forced out of defense officials at a time when KMT legislators have faced accusations of leaking details regarding Taiwan’s domestic submarine program and confidential diplomatic negotiations by the Tsai administration. 

The laws were framed by the KMT and TPP as increasing the oversight powers of the legislature over the executive branch of government. Nonetheless, critics alleged that this was, in fact, a bid to grant legislators powers normally reserved for the executive branch of government. While the KMT and TPP claimed that the DPP previously tried to introduce similar legislation during the Tsai administration, the DPP has denied that its own legislation aimed at “congressional reform” is anything similar to what is proposed by the KMT and TPP.

Civil society groups were also angered by that discussion over the bill skipped committee review to advance to the second reading, a move seen as violating fundamental principles of transparency. Likewise, although the Taiwanese legislature has 113 seats, votes were counted by raising hands rather than through ballot, actions criticized as an attempt to skew the voting process. 

After the laws passed their third reading, comments by KMT caucus convener Fu Kun-chi seemed to indicate how the new powers will be used. Fu stated that the KMT will convene “special investigation groups” to dig into what it claims are acts of corruption by the Tsai administration. Topics to be investigated will include shortages of medical masks, vaccines, and eggs that Taiwan faced in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic or afterward. 

Though Taiwan was often hailed as having one of the world’s most successful COVID-19 responses, the KMT and its political allies accused the Tsai administration of failing the public, suggesting irregularities with the shortages that Taiwan experienced at the start of the pandemic. For example, with the Tsai administration putting resources into the development of the domestically-manufactured vaccine Medigen at a time when Taiwan saw shortages of vaccines, the KMT alleged that this only occurred because of the Tsai administration’s investments in the company. Similarly, the KMT has alleged corruption regarding the “National Team” that the Tsai administration set up to boost the production of medical masks to cope with scarcity during the pandemic, and claimed that the egg shortages Taiwan saw after the bird flu necessitated the mass culling of chickens were the result of corruption on the part of the DPP. 

The KMT is likely hoping for highly public incidents that it can leverage to attack the DPP, particularly former Tsai administration officials. It is a question whether the KMT would go after Tsai directly, with the KMT having alleged insider trading by Tsai in OBI Pharma and biotech companies in the past. 

Indeed, prior to expanding legislative powers, the KMT called reinstating the Special Investigation Division (SID) of the Ministry of Justice and placing it under legislative authority. During past KMT administrations, the SID was used to investigate DPP politicians, including former President Chen Shui-bian, with the SID’s investigation leading to Chen’s jailing after the end of his presidency. As the public fallout from charges faced by Chen led to the DPP losing the presidency from 2008 to 2016, the KMT may be hoping for the DPP to be similarly tarred by scandal today. 

What occurs next is unclear. The Executive Yuan, Taiwan’s executive branch of government, can use its powers of oversight to raise issues with the bill. The DPP has also stated that it will seek a constitutional interpretation of the bill. Although Lai has options as Taiwan’s president, the veto power that he possesses is relatively weak. He cannot block the bill but can only return it to the legislature for another 15 days of discussion. Civil society groups involved in organizing the Bluebird Movement have called on the Executive Yuan to exercise such powers, as well as argued that the bill is unconstitutional. 

In many ways, the ball is in the Lai administration’s court about how to react. Lai has kept his distance from the demonstrations, with the KMT and TPP accusing the DPP of engineering them. However, after Friday’s demonstration Lai did express support for protesters’ demands in a statement released on social media. 

Civil society groups demonstrating against the bill have framed it as the initiative of KMT caucus convener Fu Kun-chi, rather than Legislative Yuan president Han Kuo-yu or KMT chair Eric Chu. Such groups may see Fu as an easy target, given Fu’s longstanding record of corruption, including jail time. In addition, Fu led a delegation of 17 KMT lawmakers to China shortly before Lai’s presidential inauguration, during which he met with the Chinese Communist Party’s chief ideologist Wang Huning. That further makes Fu a convenient target due to his association with the CCP through his recent visit. 

Apart from jail stints on charges related to insider trading and bribing the media, when serving as county commissioner of Hualien, Fu gained infamy for divorcing his wife Hsu Chen-wei, then naming her to be deputy county commissioner so that during his period in jail, she would become county commissioner. As such, Fu has historically been a contentious figure within the KMT, particularly among younger members who hope for the party to change its historical association with corruption and links with organized crime during the authoritarian period. 

More recently, Fu faced allegations of vote buying in the Central Committee elections from younger members of the KMT. Still, Fu’s star has been on the rise in the party in recent years, with his being named to the Central Committee in 2022, and on the party’s election strategy committee in 2023. 

On the other hand, the youth-heavy nature of the Bluebird Movement demonstrations seems to be a rejoinder to the view that young people overwhelmingly support Ko Wen-je’s TPP, which has backed the KMT’s efforts to expand legislative powers. After the third reading of the bill, Ko hailed the moment as historic. But with the TPP having aligned itself closely with the KMT on such a contentious issue, Ko’s party may face challenges maintaining its political brand as a a third option unaligned with either of Taiwan’s two major political camps. The DPP will certainly make the case that the TPP is simply the KMT’s junior partner.

Though the DPP has largely played up the new powers as something that the KMT would use to target dissent, the DPP could capitalize on the changes, too. Given Fu’s reputation for political corruption, it is hard to imagine that the DPP would not see him as a potential target. In this sense, it is possible that the new powers lead to both the DPP and KMT adopting scorched earth approaches to each other. 

More broadly, it is to be seen if the controversy regarding the KMT-led expansion of legislative powers sets a precedent for the next four years of the Lai administration, with the KMT and TPP using the majority they hold if they vote together to ram through legislation even if it leads to protest. If so, one expects the next four years to be turbulent for Taiwanese politics.