Student Movement No Friend of Democracy in Taiwan

On the March 18, student protesters stormed into the Taiwanese Legislative Yuan in Taipei to halt the passage of a bill ratifying a treaty that will liberalise trade in services between China and Taiwan. The protesters argued that the government was acting undemocratically by trying to ram the bill through parliament. They also argued that the bill could potentially harm the national security and independence of the island, by increasing its economic dependence on China, which never disavowed reunification by force. The students occupying the legislative building demanded that the offending piece of legislation be withdrawn, and that new laws enforcing greater public scrutiny of future legislations affecting cross-strait relations be enacted. The protest ended with the victory of the students. On the April 6, the speaker of the Legislative Yuan pledged that the bill would not progress further before more laws restricting the government’s freedom to enact legislations on cross-strait relations are established. The students withdrew from the legislative building on the 10th April.

Image courtesy of WTFPL, ©2014, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of WTFPL, ©2014, some rights reserved.

The Sunflower student movement (named for the heliotropic property of the flower) is hailed worldwide as a shining beacon of Taiwanese 20-year old democracy. The BBC argued that ‘If the students succeed, it could mean a further democratisation of Taiwan, with additional safeguards to let the people, not any political party, decide the fate of the island.’ US Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat and founding member of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus, commented that ‘The world is watching these courageous students. The message to President Ma is that when you try to jam a trade agreement through, people will resist.’

Yet it is questionable if the piece of legislation was indeed ‘jammed through’, and that the students’ occupation of the legislative building is justified. The popularised version of the history of the controversial legislation is that it was passed in 30 seconds without proper debate. A careful study would find that is not the case. The Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement between China and Taiwan was negotiated and signed in June 2013. Before the signing, the treaty was debated in three legislative plenary session. After the signing, the ruling Kuomintang party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the main opposition party, agreed to examine the impact in 16 public hearings, 8 to be chaired by each party. The hearings were scheduled to be held between September 2013 and March 2014. The opposition party failed to convene some of the planned hearings. The Democratic Progressives’ internal consensus was that they would prevent the passage of the treaty by any means. On March 17th, members of the opposition sought to prevent the treaty from moving past the committee stage by physically occupying the speaker’s stand. In the confusion that ensured, the KMT convener of the committee was able to announce that the 90 day limit of committee examination has passed and that the piece of legislation would move forward. The same night, protesting students moved into the legislative building and began a 30-day siege, which resulted in the legislation’s withdrawal.

The student protesters contend that the ruling KMT has acted in an undemocratic manner. They argued that the hearings the KMT held did not allow true dialogue, that criticisms of the treaty did not result in its amendment, and that the hearings were no more than propaganda exercises. They further contend that bill has not been through a clause-by-clause examination in the committee stage. Thus, the occupation of the legislative building was a last resort to protect the island from the harm that further economic integration with China would bring. They painted Victor Hugo’s famous quote – ‘when dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right’ – outside the occupied legislative building.

It is unsurprising that the Taiwanese, who have experienced the crushing weight of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s (and later KMT’s) U.S.-backed dictatorship between 1945 and 1989 – would be weary of any sign return to authoritarian rule. Yet the KMT leadership has acted within the bounds of its power throughout the controversy. President Ma Ying-Jeou of the KMT was re-elected president in 2012 on a clear platform of closer economic integration with China. The same year, KMT won 64 of the 113 seats of the Legislative Yuan. It is within the bounds of democracy for the ruling party to enact highly controversial, and indeed, unpopular legislations. This does not constitute a majoritarian view of democracy – liberal democracy requires the protection of civil rights, not that they would be spared from unpopular but legal policies. Throughout the controversy, the Taiwanese government has made no attempt to restrict debate or opposition to the treaty – indeed that would be impossible in the one of the world’s most connected societies with an ultra-competitive media landscape. Ma’s Taiwan is not Erdogan’s Turkey.

Furthermore, illegal occupation of the legislative building was hardly the ‘last resort’ before permanent harm is done. The DPP did not finish the hearings it pledged to hold. The bill was not submitted to the Taiwanese Supreme Court. That the opposition had not done so is likely because it knows that the court is likely to find the government has acted within the bounds of the constitution all along. Furthermore, the next presidential and legislative council elections are less than only two years away. Should the majority of the Taiwanese people disagree with the KMT, they could vote another party into power, and revise cross-strait treaty. Some argue that permanent harm would have been done by then. Yet few bother to explain how a service treaty would lead to irreversible damage to the island. Despite China’s increasingly military spending, Taiwan maintains a credible defensive force with strong U.S. backing. Economic integration would increase the cost of a unilateral independence bid by Taiwan, but it would also increase the cost of forced reunification to China. Whatever disadvantages the treaty brings to Taiwan, they are unlikely to be so severe to warrant extra-constitutional intervention.

Despite best intentions, the Sunflower student movement and its success has discredited Taiwanese democracy. To believe that a few hundred student protesters would better represent the people’s will than millions of votes is to hold democracy in contempt. The prospering of democracy in Taiwan, under the enduring military threat imposed by China, is an uplifting success in a region plagued by autocracy. Yet democracy requires all, including ‘the people’, to play by the rules of the game. There must be no other game in town – just as any it would be abhorrent for the military to intervene in politics, so it is with unelected students occupying the legislative building and exercising extra-constitutional power bestowed by passing popularity. Taiwan’s allies in the U.S. Congress should voice its support of constitutional rule in Taiwan, not to stoke further unrest. To do less would be acting on double standards. After all, how would Congressman Sherrod feels like students from Georgetown University take over Congress and declare Obamacare invalid?



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