Written by Ming-sho Ho.

This past summer saw a record-high temperature of 39.3 degree Celsius in Taipei city. Befittingly Taiwan’s social protests were fueled by two incidents of human rights violation by the government. In a sense, the heat wave persisted into autumn as the protest activism continued its momentum. Consequently the ruling Kuomintang’s convention of national representatives scheduled on September 29 was called off at the last minute for “security reasons.”

On July 3, an army conscript was allegedly tortured to death in punitive confinement. The victim was about to finish the military service and resume his graduate studies, and speculation says that the punishment was to prevent him from whistle-blowing irregularities in the army. There was popular suspicion of the military investigators for cover-ups. On August 3, the furor erupted into a protest by the so-called “White Shirts”, which attracted two hundred fifty thousand participants. President Ma Ying-jeou attended the funeral amid the angry crowds who cried out for his resignation. Two Ministers of Defense had stepped down and the government promised to revise the military justice system and look into unnatural deaths in the military.

The other incident involved a controversial case of land expropriation in Dapu (大埔) in Miaoli County. Local landowners had resisted the government’s attempt to expropriate their houses and agricultural land for commercial use since 2009. In 2010, a suicide tragedy forced the central government, then headed by Premier Wu Den-yih, to intervene to protect the rights of four households who opposed the project. However, this year on July 18, the Miaoli County government disregarded Wu’s promise and bulldozed the four remaining buildings. To add insult to injury, a demolition fee that turned out to be equivalent to the compensation for the expropriated households was imposed, meaning that the officials were determined to confiscate the land for nothing. A protest with more than twenty thousand people took place on August 18. In the closing minutes, the sponsor Taiwan Rural Front staged an unannounced act of civil disobedience by occupying the ground floor of the Ministry of Interior. Their protest lasted until six in the afternoon the next day.

These episodes represent only two snapshots of Taiwan’s summer protests. Social activism on the issues of nuclear power, media monopoly, worker unemployment, and service and trade agreement with China also took place, albeit not in such dramatic fashion. It looked as if Taiwan was thrown back to the late-1980s when the lifting of martial law suddenly uncorked the pent-up grievances that exploded in unruly street protests.

There are several noteworthy features in Taiwan’s recent protest politics that I want to highlight in this short piece.

Firstly, college students made up the main participants. From my personal experiences at the National Taiwan University, student activism has become more visible on the campus since the “Wild Strawberry” movement in 2008. Recent years witnessed students’ growing involvement in the issue of laid-off workers, media monopoly and urban renewal. Students usually took the side of the underprivileged victims and their participation raised the issue salience, sometimes into national spotlight.

Secondly, internet communications have become a powerful mobilizing weapon in movement activism, just as it has revolutionized the art of social protests globally. Taiwanese are heavy users of Facebook, with 71% of its users signed in on daily basis—the world’s number one by proportion. Thus it is not surprising many protests are nowadays organized online without the assistance from membership-based political parties or other civil organizations. Take the White Shirts for example, the nominal organizer was a Citizen 1985 Coalition—an ad-hoc group composed of 39 mutual strangers who first met on an internet forum. The result of their intensive collaboration and facebook mobilization was to bring about a quarter million people to the streets. So was the Taiwan Rural Front, a professional movement organization that focused on nation-wide land expropriation. Its activists estimated that its national network could mobilize 2,000-3,000 people for a protest event. But the demonstration on August 18 turned out to be ten times of its organizational basis. Clearly internet communication and social media has significantly lowered the cost of collective action.

Thirdly, Taiwan’s summer of discontent did not arrive unexpectedly. Earlier this year the anti-nuclear movement reached its all-time peak by mobilizing more than two hundred thousand people to the demonstration on March 9. Ever since Ma assumed the presidency in 2008, the evidence showed that social protests were on the rise. My research on the United Daily News electronic archives indicated the growth of reported protest events in 2008-2011, with the annual number as 382, 438, 517 and 564. At its core, the Kuomintang’s social agenda remained conservative and its commitment to labor protection, environmental conservation, welfare provision, gender equality, multiculturalism and human rights was weak. Moreover, the KMT government cancelled a number of participatory channels for movement activists that were opened up during the previous DPP government, and thus, forcing social movement activists to adopt the tactics of street protests.

Finally, the role of the DPP deserves a closer look. Unlike the situation in the late-1980s when many DPP activists took the leadership of social protests before launching their electoral and political careers, the recent protest wave was conspicuously lacking DPP involvement. On the night of White Shirts’ protest, two DPP heavyweights Su Tseng-chang and Tsai Ing-wen took part as “citizens” just like other two hundred fifty thousand participants without being invited to give a speech. Clearly the growth of Taiwan’s civil society organizations, partly thanks to internet communication, has weaned from its dependency upon political parties. As a matter of fact, the recently fashionable discourse “citizens’ movement” reflected this new confidence.

To sum up, Taiwan’s state under the conservative leadership of Ma Ying-jeou and the activated civil society are on a collision course, as the summer of discontent threatens to drag on indefinitely.

Ming-sho Ho (何明修) is Professor at the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University.

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