Popular protests in the digital age are made half on the streets and half online. Whether a political movement is successful or not, whether it is supported by a large number of people or not, depends on how the media depict it, and on how skillfully the protesters use the most formidable peaceful weapon of our time, the internet.
While I was following the events around Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, I felt like a man who goes out to take a nice walk in th park, but ends up in the middle of an unbearably noisy and smoggy highway full of cars. There’s just too much information around, there are too many different interpretations, and, above all, too many people shouting and screaming, arguing that they – and they alone – are right, and those who disagree are the absolute evil and do not represent anybody.
The protesters claim that they represent Taiwan, that they love Taiwan, and that they want to save Taiwan. Therefore, whoever agrees with the trade pact, or whoever disagrees with it but opposes the occupation of the Legislative Yuan, is evil, a traitor, and will sell Taiwan to China. This is the typical ideological language of those who regard disagreement as betrayal, and governments that do something they dislike as dictatorship. Pro-DPP, anti-KMT and anti-Chinese media and independent commentators (most notably many among Taiwan’s expat community) agree with this absolutistic view. Many of them, I presume, believe that the KMT is a foreign regime that, if it likes China so much, should go back there.
Pro-KMT and pro-Chinese media and independent commentators, for their part, have tried to discredit the protesters on a personal level, arguing that they should go to back to studying rather than waste their youth demonstrating. An article on Taiwan’s China Times even called the three major leaders of the student protest, Chen Wei-ting, Lin Fei-fan and Wei Yang, “naughty boys”. The paper argued that Chen and Lin are affiliated with the opposition party DPP, and Wei is a member of a youth activist group. According to the China Times, the three leaders
have all undergone instruction and training from Wang Dan and Wu’erkaixi, the famous student leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement in China, on how to conduct urban guerrilla warfare. During the latest movement, they have been on hand to check the latest warfare results (note).
I think this article deserves no comment.
Democracy can only exist if there is tolerance toward different ideas and identities, that is, if all ideas can coexist peacefully. But if two sides regard each other as traitors of the nation, as unreasonable and evil, this peaceful coexistence becomes fragile. Even in the United States, the polarisation of politics has led to an impasse that has lasted for nearly the entire Obama administration.
I regard the perspective of both sides as legitimate and justifiable. However, in my personal opinion, the way in which the Sunflower Movement has blocked the parliament is not democratic (whether it’s legal, I doubt, but I’m not familiar with ROC law). The protesters claim to represent “the people”. They are the only true voice of the people, the true Taiwan. They claim to show through opinion polls that Ma Yingjiu and the trade pact are acting against “the people”.
Recent polls, however, have shown that a growing number of Taiwanese wish for an end of the occupation (note). But that’s not my point.
Governments are not elected through opinion polls. For instance, Margaret Thatcher was at times extremly unpopular. Polls show that between 1979 and 1983 support for the Conservative Party dropped to 23%, and to 24% between 1983 and 1987 (note). Yet she managed to win two general elections and pursued her own programme. This is what the democratic change of government is about.
The interesting thing is how much Western commentators support in Taiwan what they would condemn at home. How would we react if students occupied Westminster to block the government, thus giving an extraparliamentary help to the opposition? How would we react if students occupied the Congress and blocked the Obama administration because they think he is a socialist, or he is selling the US out? Well, this is not how a democracy is supposed to function properly. Because in a democracy, no one can claim to represent “the people”, but only certain groups of people. And after one receives the mandate in the elections, one has the right to govern, within, of course, the legal framework of the constitution and the law.
Not unlike Margaret Thatcher, Ma Yingjiu has a neoliberal, pro-free trade economic viewpoint. But the main reason why he is unpopular with the protesters is because he wants to bring Taiwan and China closer. Yet, closer cross-strait ties is exactly what Ma promised to the electorate during his campaign, and he won two elections. It was clear from the start that Ma intended to further integrate the Taiwanese and Chinese economies and improve cross-strait ties. In 2012, after Ma was re-elected, the LA Times wrote:
Ma won 51% of the vote, compared with 46% for his chief rival, Tsai Ing-wen, after a tense campaign packed with criticism of his overtures to China. Ma had urged voters to see his attempts at rapprochement as a stimulus for the local economy, but was accused of getting too cozy with Taiwan’s rival of more than 60 years. (note).
This doesn’t mean that I myself agree with Ma’s position. First of all, I am opposed to neoliberalism, and second, I would negotiate with China only if the PRC renounced the use of force to achieve eventual unification. Nevertheless, sacrificing the democratic mechanisms of Taiwan’s fragile democratic balance is not a way to solve the China-Taiwan issue.
Meanwhile, the media coverage of the Sunflower Movement seems to have become a sort of circus. There are anti-Chinese ideologues that keep on depicting the Ma administration as an enemy of Taiwan; there are pro-KMT and pro-Chinese groups that try to defame the students and that propagate the idea that the trade pact is necessary and vital for Taiwan’s existence (which they can hardly prove). And then, there are the media that profit from the protests and try to make a spectacle out of it.
One of them is the erotic model Xuebi (雪碧), who wrote a song about Lin Fei-fan, the student leader I mentioned before. The title of the song is I love Lin Fei-fan (我愛林飛帆). The news network NowNews published an article about this.
Another one is a 17-year-old girl from Kaohsiung, whose half-naked sexy pictures have been published by Taiwanese media (I think that explicit pictures of underage girls should not be shown, though). Anyway, she wrote a song entitiled We are not a mob (我們不是暴民). The song says:
“We hold sunflowers, but we are chased away. We really aren’t a mob, please look into my eyes, look at our sincerity, don’t tell me you can’t see it at all, tears of blood are streaming, my eyes are filled with tears, we just want the government to see our dream.” (拿著向日葵，卻還得被驅趕，我們真的不是暴民，請看我的眼，我們的真誠，難道你們全部都看不見，世上流著血淚，眼眶帶著淚水，只是想要政府看見我們的心願) (note).
Revolutionary enthusiasm, polarisation, showbusiness …