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Tens of Thousands Protest Bill to Expand Legislative Power in Taiwan

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Tens of Thousands Protest Bill to Expand Legislative Power in Taiwan

A move by the KMT and its ally, the TPP, to quickly pass the controversial bill sparked an angry response reminiscent of the 2014 Sunflower Movement.

Tens of Thousands Protest Bill to Expand Legislative Power in Taiwan

Demonstrators gather in the streets of Taipei to protest against new legislative amendments, May 21, 2024. The Taiwan Economic Democracy Union, one of the organizing groups, estimated attendance at 30,000.

Credit: Facebook/ Taiwan Economic Democracy Union

Thousands demonstrated around the Taiwanese legislature on May 21, in a protest that started at 9 a.m. and ended shortly after midnight. According to organizers, more than 30,000 attended the protest, which took place a mere day after the presidential inauguration of Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). 

The demonstration was organized by over 40 civic groups, many of which were key players during the 2014 Sunflower Movement or formed in its aftermath. The Sunflower Movement, which commemorated its tenth anniversary this year, involved the month-long occupation of the Legislative Yuan, as Taiwan’s legislature is known, in protest of a free trade agreement with China that the then-ruling Kuomintang (KMT) hoped to pass. What stoked controversy was not only the possible impact of a trade agreement with China on Taiwan’s political freedoms, but the the “black box” treatment of the bill. The KMT skipped committee review to declare it passed. 

In many ways, the protest Tuesday was a replay of the Sunflower Movement a decade on. Once again, there was significant public outrage over actions by the KMT. What stoked anger this time was amendments to the law by the KMT and its political ally, the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), that would allow legislators to summon private individuals or government officials to face questioning. Refusal to appear could lead to criminal charges of “contempt of the legislature,” with a penalty of up to three years in jail. Those being questioned would be required to disclose answers even if they involved state secrets, such as details of diplomatic agreements or arms deals, or trade secrets. Moreover, they would not be allowed to “reverse-question,” an unclearly defined term that probably refers to some manner of speaking back against questioning, which would be punished by a fine of 200,000 Taiwanese dollars (around US$6,200). 

The measures have been compared by civil society groups to national security legislation such as those passed by governments in Southeast Asia or in Hong Kong after 2019. The proposed amendments also led to condemnation from the Taiwan Bar Association and Taipei Bar Association. A petition opposing the bill was signed by 30 international experts, including two former directors of the American Institute in Taiwan (which serves as the United States’ de facto embassy in Taiwan), a former member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, and the leader of the Cambodian opposition. 

Critics fear the amendments would be used by the KMT and TPP to target political opponents or force the disclosure of confidential information in a manner that endangers national security. Several recent controversies have involved KMT legislators disclosing such information. For example, Ma Wen-chun, appointed to co-chair of the legislature’s defense committee by the KMT, has been accused of revealing the details of Taiwan’s domestic submarine program to the Chinese and South Korean governments. 

The KMT’s push for new powers takes place after previous attempts by the party to revive the controversial Special Investigation Division (SID) of the Ministry of Justice and to place the SID under the direct control of the legislature rather than law enforcement. The SID is controversial because of its use under past KMT administrations to target political opponents, as in the wiretapping of KMT majority speaker Wang Jinpyng at a time that he was at odds with then-President Ma Ying-jeou, or corruption charges faced by Chen Shui-bian, the first DPP president, after his second term ended. Given its reputation, the SID was dissolved by Tsai Ing-wen when she took office. 

The KMT’s efforts to expand the powers of the legislature have been framed by the party as a way of expanding the Legislative Yuan’s capacity to provide oversight over the executive branch of government. For critics, this is another power grab by the KMT in a manner reminiscent of its authoritarian past. 

Further angering the public, the KMT again skipped committee review for the controversial new measures – just as it did with the ill-fated trade deal that sparked the Sunflower Movement. This has led to criticisms of the party for failing to learn from the lessons of a decade prior.

The Sunflower Movement is considered one of – if not the largest – social movement in Taiwanese history, peaking with a purported 500,000 taking to the streets of Taipei on March 30, 2014. Many of the participants in the demonstration on Tuesday connected their protest to the Sunflower Movement. A considerably number of demonstrators were high school and college students who had been too young to participate in the 2014 movement, but said they saw themselves as carrying on the spirit of a decade prior. Those who had personally taken part in the Sunflower Movement and came out to demonstrate on Tuesday reflected on how many of the same issues remained contentious 10 years later. 

A particular target of ire by the crowd was legislator Huang Kuo-chang of the TPP, who serves as the party’s caucus convener. Huang, a professor of law by training, had been one of the leaders of the Sunflower Movement. But to many, Huang is now seen as a political turncoat after aligning himself with the TPP and its leader Ko Wen-je – and by extension the KMT. The TPP voted together with the KMT for the new amendments, as the KMT does not have an outright majority on its own.

Although the TPP has framed itself as an alternative that transcends the divide between Taiwan’s two major parties, the party’s alignment with the KMT on as contentious an issue as the present legal changes is likely to cement the image of the TPP as a junior helper of the KMT. 

During some of the numerous open mic sessions that were held during the demonstrations, a number of young people stated that they hoped to refute the image of youth universally supporting Ko and the TPP.  Four stages were set up around the legislature through the course of the night as the crowd expanded.

The TPP previously demonstrated on Sunday outside of the DPP headquarters in a protest planned for the day before Lai’s inauguration. The TPP rally called for passing the new changes as part of legislative reform. 

While the protest took place outside, DPP and KMT legislators continued arguing in the legislature about the amendments. More than 50 votes were held on the amendments, with clashes breaking out in the legislature by morning. This followed similar fights between the DPP and KMT in the Legislative Yuan last Friday, when four DPP legislators and one KMT legislator were injured in the scuffles. 

Ultimately, the day ended with the legislature adjourning at midnight. The protest ended at the same time, just as it began with the start of legislative proceedings. 

An earlier spontaneous protest against the legal amendments had broken out Friday, after the fighting in the legislature. That demonstration only drew several hundred attendees. 

Further demonstrations are planned for May 24 and May 28, when the legal changes are next to be discussed on the floor of the legislature.  

Taiwan has seen few protests of the scale of Tuesday’s demonstration in the decade since the Sunflower Movement. A cause that was little discussed until last Friday has ballooned in size, from drawing a few hundred participants to drawing tens of thousands in just a few days.

A key factor in the protest last Friday was anger over violence in the legislature when DPP and KMT legislators engaged in physical clashes over the legal changes, particularly after DPP legislator Puma Shen, a disinformation and civil defense expert popular with young people, was injured. But the more salient factor in Tuesday’s demonstration seemed to be concern about the potential implications of the amendments, and anger over what was seen as yet another attempt by the KMT to undermine Taiwan’s political freedoms for pro-China interests. 

Between Friday’s spontaneous protest and Tuesday’s far more massive demonstration, images of fighting in the legislature went viral online – and Lai’s inaugural address alluded to the controversy.

But Lai has not directly weighed in on the events in the single day since he took office. It is probable that Lai will seek to keep some distance from the protests to avoid the perception that they were orchestrated by the DPP.

Yet it is possible that the legislative maneuvering sets a precedent for a contentious next four years, with the KMT and TPP capitalizing on their advantage in the legislature to try and pass measures in a way that undercuts Lai’s administration. Indeed, as the president in Taiwan has no veto power, the DPP has suggested that they will seek a constitutional interpretation to try and block the amendments. 

It remains to be seen if the protests will escalate to a level comparable in scale to the Sunflower Movement ten years ago. But, if Tuesday can be seen as setting a certain tone, we should expect contention between different branches of government for the next four years, as well as competing protest movements between the major political camps in Taiwan.