Friday, April 26, 2013

Social Issues, Civil Society and the Quality of Democracy

This is an article I wrote a few weeks ago for the China Policy Institute of the University of Nottingham. Professor Jon Sullivan asked me to write an assessment of Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou's first year of his second term, and I decided to provide some observations on the quality of Taiwan's democracy under President Ma.  Link to the published article on the China Policy Institute blog can be found here.

"Social Issues, Civil Society and the Quality of Democracy"

Huaguang residents protest in front of MOJ
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.
March to preserve the Lo Sheng Sanatorium

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 talking heads to promote support for nuclear energy and the power plant.
Anti-nuclear power march
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.
Amis elders protest against Miramar Resort
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.

(All photographs by author)
Marchers kneel and touch their heads to the ground to protest the demolition of Lo Sheng Sanatorium
Rally against the Miramar Hotel resort in Taitung

200,000+ showed up for the Anti-Nuclear Power March
Cute Anti-Nuclear Power Cacti 

Student leaders of Anti-media Monopoly Movement rally in front of the Fair Trade Commission

Anti-Media Monopoly protest at the Legislative Yuan

One day in Huaguang - Forced Eviction and Demolition [Updated]

The part of  community that was due for demolition 

It took me a day to recover from observing the forced eviction and demolition of the Huaguang Community from Tuesday evening to late morning on Wednesday.  Monitoring the fifty-hour standoff between the community members, young protesters and the police was proven to be very taxing, as I realized I am no longer in my twenties.  

Fifteen-hour Standoff

The Huaguang Community is located on Hangzhou S. Road (杭州南路) and Jihua Road (金華路), next to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall.  The Ministry of Justice claimed ownership to the property, and the majority of the residents of Huaguang were public workers for the MOJ, civil servants and low-ranking Kuomintang (KMT) military personnel, who fled to Taiwan after the Nationalist government was defeated in China in 1949.  There are also residents who lived in the community under the Japanese era. The community residents had been living on the land for the several decades, paying property tax, commercial tax and also electricity, water and gas bills.

Ministry of Justice started evicting the residents and demolishing houses of the community in February.  The demolition took place two days ago was the fourth wave.   The MOJ also filed multimillion dollar lawsuits against the residents for illegally occupying and illegally profiting from the land.  The MOJ won judgments against the residents and began freezing the residents’ bank accounts, garnishing their wages and public assistance. 

The Huaguang Community is to be razed to make space for a government bid to create a district that resembles the Tokyo Roppongi neighborhood. 

How extremely ironic the government decided to name the project “Taipei Roppongi (台北六本木) ”.  What the neighbors and local residents, who came to heckle the young protesters and residents, didn’t realize, is during the Edo period, Tokugawa insisted for the clan leaders of the six daimyo to come live in the area that would later be called Roppongi, to move them away from their home turf and to prevent them from revolting.  As Roppongi prospered, the feudal lords eventually sought expansion of the area and forcibly took land from their neighbors.   As I told a woman in the process of screaming at the young protesters, “You know, ma’am, what they’ll want next after they raised the glitzy buildings on this plot will be the old apartment you’ve been living in for the past forty years.  You’re naïve to believe the developers are going to stop right here”.

Today's Roppongi in Tokyo is a busy place.  The place is filled with night clubs, hostess bars, cabarets strips bars and restaurants.  However, it is also riddle with crime and known for the presence of yakuza members, both as patrons or business conductors.  If the same phenomenon happens in Taiwan, I doubt those from the underworld would be as tolerant to heckling as the Huaguang residents.

Police refusing entry to this journalist
Tuesday Night

Since the residents and young protesters put up a hell of a fight when the last demolition took place, the Daan District Police came to the Community thirteen hours prior to demolition, to put up barricades and wired gates to block off the community from outsiders.  There is an on-going dispute on the legality of the police action.

When I arrived at the community at around 7:30pm, there were police officers everywhere, asking for identification from any one who wanted to enter or approach the community and turning away those who they thought did not belong, including journalists with press passes.  The supporters and the residents were planning a concert with food from restaurants from the community, but the police effectively ruined the “festivity”.  As I walked around the community to survey the houses, I saw an old woman, who I later found out is a resident and worked as a street sweeper until three years ago, stood at the wired gate and told the police officer guarding the gate repeated that “they took NTD$2,000 from me every month, I cry every month”.  She’d repeat that same sentence to the police officers every five minutes. 

The concert and speeches from residents, human rights activists and academics continued until after 10:30pm, when the police would not allow a resident to take her usual route home as she came from work.  Clash broke out as the protesters attempted and then successfully removed the wired gate, forcing the police to retreat to their second line. 

Wednesday Morning

I went home to sleep for a few hours, and then woke up at 4:45am to head back to the community to watch the demolition and protest.  This time, J. Michael Cole, the Deputy News Chief of the Taipei Times accompanied me.   We were met with a much larger police presence at both ends of the barricade.  Mr. Cole was allowed into the restricted area to interview and take photographs of the event, as I stayed outside and chatted with the residents, the protesters, the police and passersby. 

Another clash occurred when the police tried to move excavators into the restricted area.  A few students were hurt, as the police was extremely rough with them.  The students then sat on the ground, holding each other’s arms, chanting, “Forced Demolition is Tyranny!  Government fine kills! (強拆暴政, 罰款殺人)”

I then moved to the east barricade.  I stood on the sideline and spoke to a few very tired and tattered looking officers, as the students distributed flowers amongst themselves.  “I’ve been here since 8pm last night, and I am still here…it’s the third hour of my overtime!” an older police complained.  “You must be tired”, I said.  “Yeah well”, he said, “but I’ll tell ya, these are the highest quality protesters I’ve seen, and I’ve been on the force for thirty years”.  He continued, “I can tell these students are so dedicated and good-natured.  They are good kids.  I don’t really have the hearts to be tough on them”.  A CID officer then said, “When I arrived, I took a quick look at the students, because I’m afraid my daughter could be among them”.

Students with flowers in hand
Later, as the students clashed with the police at the east barricade, I saw the same senior officer stood around, not really pushing back, as his other colleagues try to prevent the students from approaching the demolition site.  As he saw one young protester grabbing another policeman’s shield, he reached around me and tapped the protester lightly on her shoulder, distracting her and giving his colleague the time to retract his shield. 

The protest ended late in the morning, as the protesters threw ghost money in the air to give to the money-hungry businesses and politicians.  The two-day protest was over.

After thoughts

Some onlookers and passersby yelled and heckled the protesters, especially the young ones.  A few even tried to lecture them.  An old mainlander, who claimed to be a retired military officer, carrying a homemade bag with the phrase “Diaoyutai Islands belong to us” taped to the bag, told the students to go home and study and stop wasting their time.  Another woman with bags of grocery screamed at the protesters, “You people stand in the way of Taiwan’s progress and modernity! All you people know is whine!”  The third woman pointed at the students and sneered, “Ignorant young people with too much time on their hands! Go do something else if you are bored!  These people are freeloaders.  They need to be kicked out!”  One angry neighbor, who has been screaming at the protesters since the night before, exclaimed, “If it were up to me, I’d set all of your houses on fire and see if you leave or not!”

Mr. Zhan moving his belongs out of his house
To me, the young protesters were nothing but ignorant.  The students are not preventing society from progressing and modernizing.  On contrary, the students are the ones who understand modernity and progress shouldn’t be narrowly defined as erecting expensive high-rises, building posh shopping malls and paving wide roads.  Progress and modernity of a democratic society like Taiwan also means recognizing an individual’s right to preside and live, respect the opinion of the minority, taking care of the weakest and neediest members of the society and lending compassion and humanity while upholding the rule of law.  To many of the elderly mainlanders, Huaguang is the only home they know.  They’ve never been married, have no children and could never return to live in the country across the Strait and with the estranged family members that they had to abandon because of war.  The Huaguang eviction, demolition and protests were especially troubling to me (even when I've personally witnessed a number of different protests) because those who are being driven out of their homes without any assistance are the members of society who sincerely cannot help themselves.  Even though some of the younger members of the community (by younger, I meant those who are in their late 50s and 60s) had jobs as mechanics, food vendors and cab drivers, they are living right on the poverty line that without any assistance, they will not be able to get back on their feet.  The presence of students at the community gave hope to the residents that they were not invisible or forgotten, if only the rest of society and government could just do the same. 

(All photos by the author).

Tossing ghost money in the air
After demolition