On September 26 Taiwanese President Ma Yingjiu was hit by a book hurled at him by Yan Mingwei (顏銘緯), a student activist. Ma Yingjiu had just attended a gala organised by the International Franchise Association. According to the Taipei Times, that day an event of the pro-independence Northern Taiwan Society was hosted in the same building. When Ma left the venue, a journalist asked him to comment on Xi Jinping’s recent remark that the ‘one country, two systems’ model is the only way to solve the China-Taiwan issue. The activist then threw the book at the President, hitting his abdomen.
The 18-year-old Yan Mingwei is a student of sociology at Zhongshan University, and a member of Flanc Radical (基進側翼), an anti-Guomindang organisation. The President’s spokesperson, Ma Weiguo (馬瑋國) said that the government accepts the people’s right to express their opinions rationally, but condemns every form of violence.
At a press conference held by Flanc Radical the day following the incident, Yan Mingwei appeared calm and unrepentant. He held in his hands a copy of ‘Formosa Betrayed‘, a book written in 1965 by US diplomat George H. Kerr. Kerr sharply condemned the Guomindang dictatorship in post-war Taiwan and advocated Taiwan’s independence. Since its publication the book has become one of the most influential text of anti-Guomindang and pro-independence discourse. The Chinese title of the book, 被出賣的台灣, literally means “Taiwan has been sold out,” a phrase often used by anti-Guomindang activists to describe Ma Yingjiu’s policies towards China.
“If you’re called ‘mob’ if you just throw a book at a person who behaves like a dictator,” said Yan, “if they label us a mob, if Taiwan since 2008 has been sold out, has been moving towards reunification, then the only way is to use our own flesh, to resist. What this dictatorial regime, the Chinese Nationalist Party, has done to the people of Taiwan is something that the young generation of Taiwanese shouldn’t allow to happen.” Yan justified his action by saying that the real ‘mob’ is Ma Yingjiu who has been selling out Taiwan.
What should we make of this incident? Does the young student deserve praise, or should he be condemned?
In a democracy, all citizens have the right to express their view and to protest peacefully. But violence should not be excused.
A few months ago, during the occupation of the Legislative Yuan by students and activists, I criticised the behaviour of the protesters. I was and probably still am in the minority, and I was fiercely attacked because of my opinions. But so far I haven’t changed my mind. Although Taiwan is mostly a peaceful and civilised society, I see some groups of radical activists, journalists and other intellectuals who are spreading hatred against the Guomindang and China.
The occupation of the Legislative Yuan was an undemocratic act per definition. If you disagree with the government, you may protest, you may vote them out at the next election, but you don’t paralyse the institutions by force. No state and no democracy can exist if a government can be ousted or blocked by the crowd at any moment. I disagreed with George W. Bush’s policies, but I wouldn’t have supported a Sunflower Movement in the US. I never liked Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal policies, but she was elected and had the right to govern. Democracy is about pluralism, fairness, and the respect of the rules of the game.
Ma Yingjiu was democratically elected, twice. He has received a popular mandate. In the next elections, the voters can withdraw this mandate. But he is not like Leung Chun-Ying in Hong Kong, who has not been chosen by the voters in fair, open and fully democratic elections. From this point of view, Hong Kong and Taiwan are completely different. I support ‘Occupy Central‘ in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong has no democracy. But Taiwan has a democracy. It is not a perfect one, but it has been steadily improving over the years and can still improve.
Calling Ma a dictator, occupying the parliament, throwing objects at him, are just the denial of the reality in Taiwan today: namely that it is a democracy. If the majority of the Taiwanese do not like the Guomindang’s China policy, they can punish it by voting other parties. That democracy should be nurtured and improved, is a good reason to fight. But populist radicalism that denies others the right to exist and govern, is the opposite of democracy.
Paradoxically, some radical groups have inherited a few of the bad traits of the martial law era Guomindang. They embrace nationalism (they have just replaced Chinese nationalism with Taiwanese nationalism), they use China as an excuse to justify illegitimate acts aimed at destroying their opponents, and they have little respect for the spirit of democratic institutions. People congratulating Yan after his “heroic deed” show how low some groups in Taiwan have fallen. They are, unfortunately, aided in their hateful rhetoric by a large number of foreign and local intellectuals, who spend most of their time declaring the Guomindang and those who vote for it “un-Taiwanese.”
This doesn’t mean that I am against criticism of the Guomindang or China. I am opposed to one-party rule, and I think that Taiwan should never become part of the People’s Republic of China. I fully respect the point of view of activists who try to protect Taiwan from becoming part of the Communist state. Is Ma Yingjiu harming Taiwan? Perhaps. Does he believe that his policies will lead to the downfall of the Republic of China and the ultimate triumph of the Communist regime? I doubt it.
No matter what we think, democracy offers a civilised, peaceful way to deal with political opponents: elections. Use the free media, protests and activism to convince as many people as possible not to vote for the Guomindang. These are the weapons of democracy.