By Ketty Chen.

Last Thursday (March 21, 2013), residents of the Huaguang Community (華光社區)  went to the Ministry of Justice to protest the forced demolition of their homes, bringing along shingle, bricks and lumber from some of the already destroyed houses in the community. The protesters clashed with police as they attempted to confiscate the rubble, claiming it could be used as weapons. A week prior, the same residents and student advocates protested and clashed with the police in front of the Executive Yuan, as they tried to deliver a petition to the new Premier, who took office early last month and decided to retain the Minister of Justice for his cabinet.

Intensified protests

The incident in front the Ministry of Justice is only one of numerous smaller protests during President Ma Ying-jeou’s first year of his second term in office.  According the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officers of the Zhongzheng First Police District (中正第一分局), the district where most government agencies including the President’s office and the Ketagalan Boulevard are located, the frequency of the protests has intensified in the past few months [1]. Since the end of February, there have been protests every weekend and during some weekdays.

The size of the protests ranged from approximately fifty people to tens of thousands. The issues range from laid-off workers being made to repay assistance received from the Council of Labor Affairs after their employers closed down factories without paying wages, to environmental groups, academics and aborigines against the Miramar Resort Hotel in Taitung county. Citizens have protested the forced eviction and demolition of old mainlander communities and squatters residencies (眷村). Farmers whose land and rice paddies were excavated without notice by the Miaoli County government for the expansion of the Jhunsan Science Park have protested, as have those affected by the forced demolition of the Lo Sheng Sanatorium by the Taipei City Department of Rapid Transit System (DORTS) for the Shinjhuang MRT line. Activities against media monopolization,  tuition hikes, and the death penalty, in addition to a major anti-nuclear power movement have all generated attention.

Although most of the issues extend before President Ma Ying-jeou took office, the Ma administration did not demonstrate much resolve during his first term and exacerbated some cases during the second term by, for example, filing law suits against the laid-off workers for repayment, suing and freezing the bank accounts of residents of mainlander communities, and going back on promises to keep the farmland in Miaoli by the Vice President, and the action of the Ministry of Interior to continue with acquisition and demolition[2].

On the media monopoly issue, President Ma has delegated the task to the “independent agencies” under the Executive Yuan, the Fair Trade Commission and the National Communications Commission, and insists the administration should not involve itself with the acquisition of media outlets by business conglomerates. The Ma administration and the Kuomintang are currently developing ways to effectively deal with rising public opinion against the continuation of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant and nuclear energy more generally. Their proposed resolutions include the recommendation to hold a referendum and providing television political talk shows with more taking heads to promote support for nuclear energy and the power plant.

Robust Civil Society

From the series of protests and social movements during the first year of President Ma’s second term, a few interesting observations can be made:  1) Civil organizations, student groups and NGOs have taken the place of political parties and became organizers and leaders of the protests; 2) Social injustice, public safety, maintenance of democratic values, such as freedom of expression and press, are drawing the largest numbers of citizens to the street, instead of the traditional political divide such as, green vs. blue, independent vs. unification, Taiwan vs. China, Taiwanese vs. Mainlander; 3) One can also observe participation from various strata of socio-economic background and age groups, transcending support for specific political parties.

In addition, increasing number of students and the youth population are becoming involved in social movements, political and social issues advocacy. The Anti-Media Monopoly protest on September 1 last year was said to be the largest protest dominated by the young since the Wild Lily Movement in the early 1990s. Therefore, while President Ma’s approval rating is in the low teens, the discontent among citizens on various socioeconomic and public safety issues has reinforced Taiwan’s robust civil society, an essential component of a healthy, vibrant democracy.

Ma’s overly ambitious and optimistic first campaign, which promised to dramatically improve the lives of Taiwanese, his portrayal of the readiness of his administrative team, Ma’s vow to continue fulfilling campaign promises from the previous term if elected to a second term, combined with his inability to fulfill those promises are all reasons for the wide-spread of disgruntlement among ordinary citizens.  The main challenge to the Ma administration now is the ordinary citizens who are not a part of any organization. These citizens are of critical importance in shifting the political balance because they are turning up in the streets in protest marches. They heckle the police and the authorities to express their opposition first to specific measures, support broader demands, and ultimately it is these citizens who can challenge a regime.

Moreover, advocates and protesters are learning campaign, mobilization and demonstration strategies from each other, while showing up at one another’s demonstrations to lend support. It is usual to see a group of graduate students protesting in front of the Fair Trade Commission against the monopolization of media, then see the same group of students show up in front of the Department of Rapid Transit System (DORTS) placing stickers that say, “Quit lying and be professional” on the department’s sign to advocate for the lepers of Losheng Sanatorium. Protesters often cite the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights” (ICCPR) and the “International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” (ICESCR), which the Kuomintang dominated Legislative Yuan passed into law, with President Ma signing the instrument of ratification on May 14, 2009.  The camaraderie among the different advocacy groups is a salient phenomenon in Taiwan today.

Challenges in the Next Three Years

During Ma’s first term, the political opposition mobilized most of the major protests. From the Anti-EFCA Rally, to Ma’s 100-day Protest, to the 517 Rally and the 1025 Rally to Protect Taiwan, the theme never drifted too far from defending Taiwan’s sovereignty or against Ma’s China-friendly cross-Strait policies. However, in recent months, not only have protests became more frequent and intense, but protesters are focusing on issues social justice, social and economic welfare, human rights and democratic quality.  Ma’s habitual “Will resolve in accordance to law” (依法行政) answer no longer resonates. One of the most popular term netizens are now using to reflect Ma’s policies is “lack of feeling” (無感).

As the Ma administration struggles to provide feasible solutions to social issues, it is encouraging to see youth and citizens who ordinarily would not take to the streets assuming the task of monitoring the government, holding government officials, including the President, accountable for their promises and their obligation to the people.  This lively and independent civil society is invaluable in upholding the quality of democracy in Taiwan. It should also serve as a cautionary tale to the opposition that attacking President Ma on his policy failures is not enough to win votes or instigate regime change. The opposition will have to prove itself as a viable political alternative to the Kuomintang in order to achieve electoral success in the upcoming elections.

As an official from the Civil Execution Department responsible for the forced demolition of Huaguang Community said, “I’m just doing my job as an officer of the court, but it’s the government – right now, Ma Ying-jeou – who is responsible for taking care of the people. Everyone else is watching, including me, and if we realize they are insincere in helping us better our lives, we won’t welcome them back” [3].

Dr. Ketty W. Chen is a Visiting Scholar at the National Taiwan University, Institute for Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences. Prior to arriving Taiwan, she taught at the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at Collin College in Plano, Texas. Follow her on Twitter @HelloKetty1998.

[1] Interview conducted by author during and after the March 21, 2013, Huaguang Community Ministry of Justice protest.

[2] When the residents of the Huaguang Community refused to move out of their homes in 2000, the Ministry of Justice under the Chen Shui-bian administration did not carry out the project of urban renewal.

[3] Interviewed by the author on March 18, 2013 at Huaguang Community, Taipei, Taiwan.


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