A few days after the beginning of Taiwan’s protests against a planned trade agreement with mainland China, I am still struggling to admit to myself that I am not caught in the general euphoria.
I am going to say something very unpopular, but I think the hype around these protests shows again how schizophrenic media coverage and popular perception can be.
First, I shall briefly summarise the events that led to this crisis.
In June 2010, Taiwan and mainland China signed the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), a general agreement that strengthened economic cooperation between the two countries. The follow-up to this agreement was the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), signed in June 2013 (note). This pact would open 80 sectors of China’s service industry to Taiwanese investors and 64 sectors of the Taiwanese economy to China. Among these areas are finance, healthcare, transportation, and tourism (note). Given that the fortunes of many Taiwanese millionaires are tied to mainland China, the trade pact was welcomed by the island’s business elites, but it was extremely controversial with the general public.
As the Asia Times Online reported in August 2013, the signing of the agreement
sparked a two-day occupation of the legislative podium by opposition Democratic Progressive Party and Taiwan Solidarity Union lawmakers. The boycott ended only after all legislative caucuses agreed that the agreement would be reviewed line by line instead of being rammed through a ratification vote, as desired by the rightist Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) government (note).
The breach of exactly this compromise led to the demonstrations of the past few days. In fact, KMT lawmakers blocked the clause-by-clause review, causing an uproar. As J. Michael Cole reported,
on March 17, with the legislature brought to a standstill and the DPP occupying the podium, Chang [i.e. Chang Ching-chung, pinyin: Zhāng Qìngzhōng, 張慶忠, a KMT lawmaker] citing Article 61 of the Legislative Yuan Functions Act, announced that the review process had gone beyond the 90 days allotted for review. The agreement should therefore be considered to have been reviewed and be submitted to a plenary session on March 21 for a final vote (note).
This action, which was deemed undemocratic by opposition legislators as well as by a large part of the Taiwanese public, sparked protests and sit-ins in front of the Legislative Yuan, which ended up in the occupation of the building by students and activists.
The reason why the trade agreement with China is so divisive (after all, Taiwan has signed trade agreements with other countries) reflects the divide between Chinese and Taiwanese nationalism on the island (I will talk about this in my next post). While the KMT and its coalition partners seek closer ties with China, the DPP, other opposition groups and a large part of the Taiwanese population are afraid that by allowing PRC nationals to invest in Taiwan, Beijing will gradually undermine the independence of the island and pave the way to its eventual annexation. They also charge the KMT government of acting against the will of the people and making big decisions behind closed doors.
The general public both in Taiwan and abroad sees these protests as a proof of the strength of the democratic spirit of Taiwan’s civil society, and they are endorsing the demonstrators. This perception of the demonstrations echoes that of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and of Egypt’s Jasmine Revolution.
Police forces have not removed the protesters from the Legislative Yuan, but they have evicted by force those who had stormed the Executive Yuan. Dozens of injuries among protesters and students are reported (note).
There are two aspects of these demonstrations that I find at least questionable:
1 – protestors are occupying government buildings. Of course, they are defending Taiwan’s democratic processes, but they are also undermining a government that has been elected democratically. In a democracy, a government may do things that a large part of the people dislike (world leaders like George W. Bush, Silvio Berlusconi, Margaret Thatcher and others have at times been extremely unpopular), but the democratic response to it should be to wait and defeat the government in the next elections. Moreover, I haven’t so far understood if the KMT breached any laws or if it just ignored an inter-party agreement. If the KMT did something illegal, it may be justified for protesters to storm the Legislative Yuan and restore legality. But if the KMT did not breach the law, I don’t see the reason for an occupation of the institution.
2 – the nationalistic and anti-Chinese undertone of these protests, about which I will write in another post.
Let’s move now to the other side of the world, to Spain, where over the last few weeks there have been massive anti-austerity demonstrations. The so-called “March of Dignity” aimed at drawing attention to the poverty caused by austerity measures. Tens of thousands of protesters marched in Madrid, and in the final hours of the demonstration there have been clashes between violent protesters and the police, resulting in more than 100 injuries (note).
The completely different way in which protests in Spain and Taiwan have been covered by the media is astonishing. While in Taiwan the protesters are heroes of democracy, in Spain they have either been ignored or they have been portrayed as members of ‘yet another’ anti-austerity movement. It seems that if you protest against China you are a hero, but if you protest against neoliberal and austerity policies that lead people to hunger and suffering you are a parasite, a leftist, and a good-for-nothing. Why haven’t all the popular protests in Greece, Spain, Italy, and other countries been celebrated as proves that the people still believe in democracy? Why has the fact that, no matter whom you vote for, most European governments pursue the same agenda, not been denounced as undemocratic?
If you take a closer look at the comment section of CNN, it seems to me that the majority of the people reacted very differently on Taiwan’s and Spain’s protests.
Let’s read a few comments written about Taiwan:
- The students are great. They sacrificed their cosy life and stay all night in the cold rain night. They are better than me just siting in front the screen.
- Most of these people are students who are protesting the under-the-table secret agreement signed by the Ma regime and the Chinese Communists.
- fight for our democracy!!! Help Taiwan by spread this News!! Anti-dictatorship!
- Stupid Taiwan media focuses on students drinking beer instead of focusing on the real problem. Who cares what a few students do, this is a bigger issue that Taiwan needs to resolve. The story is not the beer drinking, the story is how stupid Ma’s government is, as an expat in Taiwan, I do not want Taiwan to become anything like China or HK.
If you look at the comments on Spain’s protests, they are very split. Some people react positively, others negatively, but certainly there isn’t this general feeling that the protesters are heroes:
- I’ve never understood why people protesting against government action feel it’s okay to injure the police who are attempting to keep anarchy at bay. If anything, the protesters should go after the politicians directly who pass the laws that these people are protesting against. Go to their homes or offices — you’d get better results.
- this is why it’s better to not give people free stuff in the first place. The moment the country has to reduce the payouts because of fiscal issues is the moment the people receiving those payouts flip out because they’ve not developed any other skill besides saying “gimmie” and then taking money. The US should heed this warning
- You obviously have no clue what the demonstration was about. It’s not about welfare, it’s about a 21% income tax rate in almost everything, including basic necessities which were at 8% not too long ago. It’s about educational, social, and cultural cutbacks. It’s about serious salary reductions for public servants (teachers, firefighters, police officers), major cutbacks and reduction of public transportation,pensions and health care. It’s about a corrupt political class with extravegant lifestyles who make extra tens of thousands of euros for meals and lodging even though they own properties where they work. It’s about a senate for a country with less than 40 million people that is larger than the US Senate which represents more 310 million U.S. Americans, and which actually accomplishes nothing but meanwhile they get lifelong salaries for serving one term. It’s about the Catholic church getting 10,000 million euros (about $13.4 B) from public coffers. It’s about people getting evicted from their homes by the banks, and still having to pay the mortgage on a home they no longer live in or own. It’s about the royal family getting an undiclosed amount (somewhere in the hundreds of millions of euros) from the government so they can go on hunting expeditions and pose with the dead elephant, and travel the world on their yachts while the government maintains their palaces and mansions and they live their luxurious lifestyles, and go about their shady business deals which defraud the nation and investors of millions.I could go on for pages, since this is just the tip of the icerberg but I won’t, if you really want to know do some research.
- It seems that every time there is a protest, and it is at about once a week, there are the scum with their masks that start the vandalism. They have made a career of this type violent actions. Although I believe the unemployment situation is the cause of a lot of the protests, many socialist feel that they deserve a home, food, medical care without having to work for it. For example, many feel that if they cannot pay their mortgage they deserve to live in the home anyway.
So why are the Taiwanese students and activists celebrated as heroes of democracy, while protesters in Europe are seen as a nuisance or as defendants of a hopeless cause it’s not worth talking about? Is it because the first are anti-Chinese, while the others are anti-neoliberalism?