The recent student protests in Taiwan have become a highly debated topic on the island’s as well as international media. The movement, which calls itself ‘Sunflower Movement’, was formed on March 19, when students occupied Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. The reason for this act of protest was a trade agreement with China which the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was pushing through parliament in a way that the opposition party DPP and a part of the population regarded as non-democratic (note 1, note 2).
While Taiwan’s press was divided on whether the movement was legitimate or not, with the pro-KMT and the anti-KMT camps offering their own respective interpretation, Western media have universally celebrated the movement as a proof of Taiwan’s democratic maturity.
As I have explained in my previous post, I am quite sceptical about the Sunflower Movement, mainly for three reasons:
1) the protesters are trying to delegitimise an elected – though unpopular – government through extra-parliamentary means;
2) the movement has a strong Taiwanese nationalistic undertone;
3) the media are glorifying the movement in a simplistic way;
1) the trade deal with China should not come as a surprise. The KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) is a pan-Chinese party. One can see this clearly by visiting the official page of the KMT. The party’s self-introduction explains:
The Kuomintang (KMT) is a political party with a long history and a wholesome ideal. This ideal is the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC) as a free, democratic, prosperous and dignified modern nation. The KMT’s long history is a glorious record of its committed struggle to the realization of this ideal.
In 1894, at a critical juncture in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, with clear perception and vision, traveled to Honolulu to appeal to the overseas Chinese there to form a revolutionary organization with the aim of rescuing the Chinese nation. Named the Revive China Society, it was the beginning of the KMT.
This event also marked the start of China’s drive for modernization. It has been 106 years since this remarkable process of change and development began (note).
It is obvious that the KMT regards itself as a Chinese and not as a Taiwanese party, and that it is committed to maintaining the principles established by the 1911 revolution in mainland China. Therefore, Ma Yingjiu sees himself as the President of the Republic of China, not as the President of Taiwan, which in pan-Chinese ideology is not a country but a province of China.
Of course, the attempted revival of pan-Chinese nationalism during the Ma administration borders on absurdity. For instance, in 2013 a government document urged school teachers to explain to their students that the capital of the Republic of China is Nanjing, in mainland China, and that Taipei is just the current location of the government. In fact, the KMT’s original purpose when it retreated to Taiwan in 1949 was to use the island as a base from which to retake the mainland and return to Nanjing. This prospect is completely unrealistic, to say the least. Another example is Mongolian and Tibetan Commission Minister Tsai Yu-ling (Cai Yuling, 蔡玉玲), who stated that Mongolia remains ROC territory (even the PRC has recognised Mongolia as independent!) (note).
However, the KMT administration has been democratically elected. Ma’s government defeated the DPP in two elections, in 2008 and 2012. According to the New York Times, the KMT gained support among business elites who have interests in China and people who wanted to maintain the status-quo with the PRC (note). Perhaps, also people who were disappointed by Chen Shui-bian’s administration might have enlarged the KMT’s electorate.
That the KMT wanted closer ties with China must have been clear to everyone. This was not only a consequence of the KMT’s ideology, but also part of its electoral campaign programme.
The DPP and anti-Chinese forces cannot delegitimise a democratically elected government by taking to the streets and trying to impose their own agenda. Rather, they should organise in order to defeat the KMT in the next elections and pursue their own policy. Apparently, the deligitimisation of the KMT is the goal not only of the opposition, but also of a large part of the expat population and foreign media. They all seem to be extremely anti-Chinese and anti-KMT.
2) The anti-Chinese component of the Sunflower Movement is a mix of anti-Communism (to which KMT indoctrination during its one-party regime contributed greatly), Taiwanese nationalism, anti-KMT sentiment and anti-Chinese stereotypes. I have witnessed anti-Chinese stereotypes among the Taiwanese populationmany times, and although I am not denying that certain mainland Chinese individuals behave badly and that the CCP government gives enough reasons for criticism, anti-Chinese feelings often go too far.
Former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian fomented native Taiwanese nationalism which was directed against ‘mainlanders’ and non-Hoklo speakers. Chen’s policies upset a part of Taiwan’s population, including ‘mainlanders’, Hakka, and aborigines (see John F. Copper: The KMT Returns to Power: Elections in Taiwan 2008 to 2012. 2012, Chapter I). Taiwanese nationalism also gave rise to more radical groups, such as the Taiwanese Nationalist Party (TNP), founded in July 2011, whose programme is based on ethnic strife and ethnic cleansing. The party’s goal is, in fact, that of “expelling the Chinese and safeguarding Taiwan” and of holding a referendum for independence. As Chinese, the TNP defines all the people “who were born in or have lived in Taiwan for an extended period, but who identify [themselves] as Chinese” (note). I will explain in another post why I consider nationalism (and especially this kind of exclusive nationalism that politicises ethnic strife, collectivises identity and blurs the difference between individual and public sphere) as a negative force in politics.
In a previous post (“Does Taiwan Belong to China?“) I wrote that, in my opinion, both pan-Chinese and Taiwanese nationalism are legitimate ideologies. It is up to every party to gain enough support and consensus among the populace and to secure the viability of their different perceptions. Since the KMT has managed to gain consensus even after the demise of the one-party state, it should be allowed to govern. Blocking a government and imposing on it a different agenda is not a sign of democratic spirit, but of intolerance and of ochlocratic tendencies. Of course, this argument is not valid if the KMT has breached the law. In this case, popular protest may very well be justified in order to restore legality.
The nationalistic attitude of some protesters hinders a rational discussion about the economic reasons why the trade agreement might not be good for Taiwan. As Hsiao Hung-pai has explained in an article published on The Guardian, it is the free trade component of the agreement which many workers are afraid of. These economic considerations are certainly reasonable and are understandable as a reaction against neoliberalism, of which Ma Yingjiu seems to be a strong proponent. But again, if people don’t like free trade, they have the chance to vote for a party that does not support it and change the government.
3) Public opinion seems to have double-standards when it comes to popular protests. When the police forcibly evicted activists from the Executive Yuan, leaving hundreds injured both among protesters and policemen, there was a public outcry, which is certainly justified since some police officers seem to have gone beyond the limits of what their duty allows them to do (note).
However, I have seen little sympathy for many other protesters in other countries who were injured during demonstrations. The many victims of police violence against anti-austerity protesters in Europe have been ignored, or worse, mocked, while the EU, international organisations and the US not only watched idly, but also approved (note, see also a gallery of pictures of injured protesters). Many Taiwanese, too, have shown little interest in those people who suffered injuries during protests, as it was of no consequence for themselves or was done against ‘lazy’ people who somewhat deserved to be maltreated a bit.
The reason why Taiwan’s protests are seen in a positive light, is, in my opinion, their anti-Chinese element. This has actually become the main message of the demonstrations, while the economic component has been downplayed.