Disagreement & Democracy
Politically Educated Students: Protesters against a Taiwanese trade pact with China cheer after
leaving the legislature in Taipei.
Photo Credit: Chiang Ying-ying; Associated Press; April 10, 2014
Source: LA Times
An interview article, by Jeffrey Wasserstrom, in Dissent looks at some of the overarching issues behind Taiwan's Sunflower Protests, in which hundreds of students occupied the Taiwanese legislature in Taipei for 24 days; the students left the building peacefully and jubilantly on April 10, but this might not be the end of protests.
Although Prof. Wasserstrom draws some parallels with the protests in China 25 years ago this month, culminating in the deaths in and around Tiananmen Square, Taiwans's protests have reasons of their own, unique to its history and economy and to its trading relationship with China.
Twenty-five years ago this month, a student-led mass movement began in Beijing that would capture the attention of the world and lend wide recognition to the name “Tiananmen Square,” the site of important Chinese government buildings, revolutionary shrines, and the struggle’s largest rallies. As the quarter-century anniversary of that protest—and the June 4 massacre that crushed it—drew near, it was student-led demonstrations across the Taiwan straits that made headlines. Their main gathering place was in Taipei, where activists occupied not a plaza near official buildings but a government complex itself.
To help explain the causes and meaning of the protests in Taiwan, and how they can best be compared, contrasted, and connected to the famous Chinese struggle of 1989, I’ve turned to Shelley Rigger of Davidson College, a political scientist, Taiwan expert, and author of Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: First off, can you give a quick run-down of what triggered the protests in Taipei? What is the main concern or grievance of those who took to the streets and then occupied the Legislative Yuan?
Shelley Rigger: The protesters have substantive grievances, but the catalyst for taking over the legislative chamber was a procedural problem, so let’s start there. The legislature was reviewing an agreement Taiwan had negotiated with Beijing to open trade in services between Taiwan and mainland China (they’re already huge trading partners, but service companies are limited in what they can do). The majority party—the KMT, which also controls the executive branch—had promised to subject the agreement to a line-by-line review. During that process the minority party—the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP—used disruptive tactics to slow things down. On March 18 the KMT legislator in charge of the review lost patience and moved for a vote in the full legislature. That’s when the students stormed into the legislature and blocked the doors. They’ve been there ever since, though as I write this on April 7, there is word that, having secured concessions on some demands, they will be leaving later this week.
In short, the immediate cause of the crisis was the breakdown of the review process the KMT had promised. The students accuse the KMT of overriding the democratic process to ram through legislation. But obviously there’s more to it than that. We need to ask why this particular piece of legislation was so sensitive.
JW: Okay, why exactly did it hit a nerve?
SR: At the heart of the crisis—and given that the students, even if they leave on Thursday, will have spent over three weeks occupying Taiwan’s legislature, it surely qualifies as a crisis—is Taiwanese people’s deep anxiety about their relationship with the People’s Republic of China. The PRC’s position is that Taiwan is part of China, and that it needs to be unified with the PRC politically, one way or another, but no one in Taiwan is eager to see that happen. Taiwanese feel themselves to be a distinct society—many would even say nation—from the PRC, and they don’t want to change their political system or become subject to leadership from Beijing. So they are hypersensitive to moves that seem likely to bring that outcome closer, and trade agreements fall into that category.
JW: Is there more to it than this?
SR: There’s also a substantive critique to be made. The trade in services agreement is the latest in a series of trade pacts between the two sides. Most of them are pretty favorable to Taiwan, on balance, because Beijing is hoping to generate goodwill toward the mainland. Still, they’re like any other trade agreements: they have winners and losers, and the losers tend to be people who are already losing out economically. So while the net result may be positive for Taiwan’s GDP, if most of the benefits go to those who are already wealthy, while the losses accrue to the working class, it makes sense that a lot of Taiwanese would oppose the pacts. But it’s not an open and shut case—even the minority party is not opposed to the agreement, just certain parts of it.
The students occupying the legislature are motivated by all three of these concerns: worries about the KMT using its majority to enact legislation without due deliberation; fear that the PRC will use trade agreements as Trojan horses to influence Taiwan politically; and dissatisfaction with trade policies that hurt the middle and working class.
JW: Why has it come to be called the “Sunflower Movement,” and is that the only name for it?
SR: Taiwan has had a series of student movements since the beginning of its democratization process. In the early 1990s it was the Wild Lily movement. The Wild Lilies built a giant flower, like an Easter lily blossom, to emulate the Goddess of Democracy statue erected in Tiananmen Square in 1989. About ten years ago there was another student movement, the Wild Strawberries. That one was a really clever name: they were referencing the popular stereotype of Taiwanese youth as the “Strawberry Tribe”—nice to look at, but soft and quick to rot. This year’s group is following that same pattern—calling themselves Wild Sunflowers, with the idea that sunflowers represent transparency.This piece of information gives me further reason to love sunflowers; not only are they tall and majestic, adorned as they are in all their yellowish beauty, but they are open and transparent. This is what liberal democracy ought to aim for, and not what it has become, a sham and a means for only the wealthy and influential to benefit. Dissent and disagreement are one of the fundamentals of democracy. Bravo to the students of Taiwan for taking a stand on such an important an issue. My hope is that you are successful.
You can read the rest of this interview at [Dissent]