Monday, August 18, 2014

Reflection on “Social Movement in Taiwan since 2008” Workshop

This is the reflection article I wrote for the EATS' (European Association of Taiwan Studies) Newsletter on the Conference on "Social Movement in Taiwan since 2008" held at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) of University of London on June 25th.

Sunflower Movement Roundtable
Civil society is one of the vibrant features of Taiwan’s democracy. During Taiwan’s liberalization and democratization, social movements led by segments of civil society sprung over Taiwan’s political landscape. Since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, Taiwan has experienced a resurgence of social movements, beginning with the Wild Strawberry Movement, where students and young protesters demand the government to respect the citizens’ right to expression and to assemble. The Wild Strawberry Movement became the first major student movement since the 1990s.

Since 2012, under President Ma’s second term, Taiwan experienced an eruption of social activism. The rising discontent over the Ma administration’s public policies, such as land expropriation, the eviction and forced demolition of citizens homes to make way for science parks and glitzy shopping areas and hotels, lawsuits against elderly laid off workers, the continue construction of the nuclear power plant, treatment of soldiers, coupled with growing apprehension over increasing Chinese influence over many sectors in Taiwan, invoked a series of small, persistent, “guerrilla- style” protests, as well as large demonstrations attended by tens of thousands participants.
Dr. Bi-yu Chang discussing my presentation

In June 2014, I had the pleasure and honour to be invited as a presenter and participant at the “Conference on Social Movement in Taiwan after 2008” sponsored by the Centre of Taiwan Studies in the School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Spearheaded by Dr Dafydd Fell, the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS is a hub for all things Taiwan. From Taiwanese films, arts and music screening to historical and political lessons, I learned the Centre of Taiwan Studies offers interdisciplinary studies to those who have chosen make Taiwan as the focus of their studies. The “Conference on Social Movements in Taiwan after 2008” was the most comprehensive conference dedicated to social movements in Taiwan and the issues associated with the movements I’ve attended. Moreover, since the conference was organized prior to the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, an additional roundtable event was added for all the conference participants to speak to and interact with SOAS students interested in Taiwan’s largest social movement to date. Several social movement themes were presented at the conference. They are: (1) Environmentalism; (2) Humanism; (3) Energy; (4) Land; (5) the China Factor, and (6) Strategies and effectiveness of social movements in Taiwan.

On the Environment 

National Sun Yat-sen University sociology professor and environmental activist, Professor Chiu Hua-mei focused her discussion on the evolution of environmental movement against industrial pollution in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan’s second largest city. Since Kaohsiung became an industrial city in Taiwan, many lauded its development of heavy industries and credited such development for the creation of jobs and prosperity. According to Dr Chiu, the City is divided into zones where various heavy industries, such as petrochemical and steel industries and power plants, made Kaohsiung their permanent home. What made Professor Chiu’s presentation exceedingly interesting was her elucidation on the different protest groups in Kaohsiung and the methods the groups use in protests. According to Chiu, the earlier protests in Kaohsiung were grassroots, mainly organized by local residents – farmers and fishermen – who were disgruntled by land grabbing and water pollution. The more massive protests against heavy industry pollution came in the 1980s but environmental activism suffered a down turn in the 1990s. Fascinatingly, Chiu informed the conference participants that it was as late as 2007 that the first professional environmental organization was founded. There on after, Kaohsiung’s environmental activism became more specialized and vigorous. Moreover, observers began to see the participation of urban residents and members of the middle class.

Professor Dafydd Fell of SOAS
With the middle class and urban citizens as additional participants, environmental activism in Taiwan surged. In the presentation under the title, “The Revival of the Green Party in Taiwan”, Professor Dafydd Fell’s discussion was a wholesome complementary to the surge of environmentalism through Taiwan. Fell contended that the Green Party performed better than any time in the Party’s history in the 2012 election. With the increase of constituents becoming more aware of environmental and energy issues, the Green Party in Taiwan, according to Fell, has found its policy niche to become and remain politically relevant.

One of the relevant environmental issue explicated by National Taiwan University’s Ming-sho Ho, was the protest against Naphtha Cracker Plants in Taiwan. According to Ho, this particular movement has been a persistent and consistent trend in Taiwan’s environmentalism. Ho traced the protests against Naphtha Cracker from 1987 to 2011 and concluded that due to increased public awareness of the tremendous pollution brought on by the petrochemical industry, new petrochemical projects are also increasingly difficult to establish. Environmental movements, according to Ho, are also becoming increasing less partisan. Most importantly, with the professionalization of environmental NGOs, mobilization is now more effective, and therefore, the protests are now more successful.

Energy and Land Issues

Professor Ho Ming-sho of NTU
Environmental activists in Taiwan often share the same protest grounds as the energy policy advocates. For example, the anti-nuclear energy activists also strongly advocated against the continuation of dumping nuclear waste on Orchid Island. Dr Simona Grano of the University of Zurich explicated the resurgence of the anti-nuclear protest since 2011. Grano personally participated in many environmental protests while conducting fieldwork in Taiwan. Grano also observed a surge of large-scaled anti-nuclear protest the past few years. The anti-nuclear protest drew tens of thousands participants to the streets. The protests were a family affair with parents bringing their young children and sometimes performing drills in case of a nuclear melt down. Anti-nuclear energy protesters even occupied Taipei Main Station and Zhongxiao West Road in the most recent protest in April.

Just as the citizens felt the nuclear energy issue is closely related to the welfare of one’s family, land grabbing and the demolition of homes is another issue that became very close to the minds and hearts of Taiwanese in recent years. Home demolition and land grabbing in places such as Dapu Borough of Miaoli County and the Huaguang Community in Taipei accompanied by images of excavators moving into farm land where rice was two weeks away from harvest and the borough residents properties scattered in ditches sparked the consistent and persistent “guerrilla type” protests through 2013 with the young protesters eventually occupying the Minister of Interior for forty eight hours.

I was responsible for presenting social movements sparked by land issues. I followed the administration’s attempt to expropriate citizens’ land for the past three years. What cultivated my interest was, when I went to Taiwan to conduct the last round of my dissertation research, I saw a video on television of an excavator mowing down a rice farm in a place named Dapu in Miaoli County. I then began researching the issues relating to Dapu and realized the Miaoli County government had been expropriating county residents’ land in order to make way for an extension of a science park, as well as an extra highway and a crematorium. The endeavor led to the demolition of several homes in Miaoli County and the victims of forced demolition committing suicide.

My presentation consisted of more than fifty photographs I took while observing the demolition and protests. This was the first time I used a tremendous amount of photographs for an academic presentation, and I received more feedback from the audience than some of my other panel discussions. My presentation at SOAS demonstrated the importance of field work and the extent to which images help deliver messages to the audience.

Strategies and Effectiveness of Social Movements
Professor Bi-yu Chang and J. Michael Cole

The most important part of the SOAS conference was the presentation and discussion of the strategies and the effectiveness of social movements in Taiwan, as well as the extent to which Taiwanese have chosen to deal with “the big elephant in the room”, as so eloquently stated by Professor Hsu Szu-chien of Academia Sinica. As many social movements as the panelists discussed at the conference, the most significant matter was, to what extent is the protest effective? What should be considered as a successful movement? What is not? This particular topic was hotly discussed at SOAS.

According to presenter J. Michael Cole, the success of a social movement should not be measured only by the number of participants at a protest. Cole argued, movements such as protest against demolition in Dapu Borough, the protest against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement led by the Black Island Nation Youth Alliance and the Alliance against Media Monster, are successful because the movement organizers made sure the government cannot ignore them and their respective issues are kept alive. Large protests such as the ones sponsored by Citizen 1985 to ensure proper treatment of military recruit, after an army corporal was tortured to death, were too predictable and organized for the government to be intimidated, though the Citizen 1985 demonstrations often drew tens of thousands of participant. Social movements that are too predictable and organized combined with the lack of effort to follow-up with the responsible government agencies and politicians have failed to cultivate the changes of law and to keep the issue alive.


The SOAS conference not only provided a platform for vigorous academic discussion on the surge of social movements in Taiwan after 2008, it was also a forum for academics, and activists to discuss not only research but to also share participation experiences in different movements. This was what I’ve never experienced in other conferences on Taiwan. The interdisciplinary and cross-professional nature of the conference should be encouraged, as I have learned tremendously from other conference participants.

Lastly, the SOAS conference also brought to the forefront an issue that cannot be ignored – the influence of China, as the China factor was one of the reasons for the student occupation of the Legislative Yuan and the Sunflower Movement. Moreover, the movement against media monopoly, the demolition of Mainlander communities in Taipei, land expropriation in Miaoli County and elsewhere in Taiwan, all in the name of progress, development and investment, all bear the influence of China.

I find the roundtable on the Sunflower Movement that was open to all students extremely important, as I was often asked why the young protesters in Taiwan decided to all of a sudden adopt the illegal mean of occupying the Legislative Yuan. The roundtable discussion on the Sunflower Movement allowed the discussants to explain to a broad audience on the causes, strategies and effectiveness of the Sunflower Movement. It was imperative to explain that the Sunflower Movement did not come out of the blue. It was a manifestation of the discontent and grievances toward the Ma administration after more than a year of non- responsiveness.

As the Legislative Yuan in Taiwan initiates yet another extraordinary session this week, the issue of Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement and the oversight bill lingers and are waiting to be resolved. Young activists are preparing for more demonstrations (Citizen 1985 is gearing up for a protest this weekend on the one year anniversary of their massive, 250,000-participant protest last year) for as long as the government remains nonresponsive to the demand of the citizens. Conference as the Conference on Social Movement in Taiwan is extremely helpful for academics and activists to not only share their research but also learn from each other’s field of expertise.

Professor Fan Yun of National Taiwan University

My second presentation was on the origin of the Sunflower Movement.
I find it imperative to give context to the movement.

Professor Szu-chien Hsu of Academia Sinica, Institute of Political Science

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Is Academic Freedom Under Assault?

My article published by the Thinking Taiwan English Platform.

Students and academics should be encouraged to care for and to participate in social issues and politics, whether they support government policies or not.
It’s been a tough week for social scientists in Taiwan. It began with Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Su Ching-chuang’s (蘇清泉) grilling of Environmental Protection Administration Minister Wei Kuo-yen (魏國彥), who was scheduled to answer questions on nuclear waste disposal, about what social scientists and the departments of sociology at universities do exactly. This was followed by Su’s tirade accusing faculty and students at public universities of “causing chaos on the streets” and his call for “education budget redistribution.” Then KMT Legislator Lu Hsueh-chang (呂學樟) stepped in and led an investigation team, organized by the Legislative Yuan’s Judiciary and Organic Laws and Statutes Committee (司法及法制委員會), into Academia Sinica, the nation’s top research institution.

The purpose of Lu’s visit was ostensibly to inspect the conditions of Academia Sinica’s staffing and performance enhancement after the institution’s restructuring (組織改造後員額編制及業務績效提升情形). According to Lu, Academia Sinica had a budget of more than NT$5 billion (US$165.8 million) for the past five years and experienced a 2% staffing increase during the same period. Given this, he said, the public has the right to examine the institution’s progress and quality of its research.
Lu’s visit to Academia Sinica would not have sparked such outrage among academics had it not happened at such sensitive time, or if he had not made such a splash of his views on certain academics and what research institutions ought to be doing.
Questioned by the press, Lu said that members of Academia Sinica had behaved in an irrational and impolite manner when they greeted President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) last month with Sunflowers, banners, and slogans as ma arrived at the institution to deliver a keynote speech at a conference on the sovereignty disputes over the Diaoyutai Islands. Ma’s visit came a week after the end of the Sunflower Movement’s three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan in protest against the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China, and less than less than a month after an estimated half-a-million people took to the streets to express their support for the Sunflowers.
Professor Chen Yi-shen. Photo credit: Paul Jobin 
Several hundred researchers, staff, and students from Academia Sinica, including Institute of Sociology research fellow Chiu Hei-yuan (瞿海源) and associate research fellow Wu Rwei-ren (吳叡人) of the Institute of Taiwan History, greeted President Ma outside the venue where he was to deliver his speech with banners that said, “Taiwan’s future is for the people to decide (台灣未來,人民做主),” or “Legislative Oversight on Cross-Strait agreements! (兩岸協議,立法監督).” Some protesters also held sunflowers while they chanted “Restore Constitutionalism, Defend Democracy (重建憲政,捍衛民主)” at the president. Later on, associate research fellows Chen Yi-shen (陳儀深) and Shiu Wen-tang (許文堂) of the Institute of Modern History, along with Paul Jobin, an associate professor at the University of Paris Diderot, held protest posters in silence inside the conference room as President Ma addressed his audience.
Such behavior from members of Academia Sinica, according to Legislator Lu, was administratively unethical and inappropriate. Lu further criticized the nation’s top research institution by arguing that Academia Sinica was subordinate to the Presidential Office, and that therefore the president was Academia Sinica’s boss. “Who would do such a thing when one’s boss visits?” Lu asked. Employees at Academia Sinica are the president’s staff and should naturally make recommendations to the president, he said. However, yelling at the president is “incongruous.” Lu suggested that Academia Sinica reflect on the incident.
But he wasn’t done. Lu then opined that while institutes of natural sciences and engineering were conducting “vigorous, outstanding research,” academic work by the Institute of Political Science and Institutum Iurisprudentiae had gone astray. Researchers should not be so critical or so vocal in their opposition to government policies, he said, as employees at Academia Sinica are also public servants. Taking part in protests, he added, violates the Civil Service Administrative Neutrality Act (公務人員行政中立法). Lu recommended that the institutes that “went astray” be merged and “reconstituted.”
Professor Huang Kuo-chang
Lu’s visit and comments sparked outrage among members of Academia Sinica and academics at other institutions of high learning. Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), an associate research fellow at the Institutum Iurisprudentiae and a key leader during the Sunflower Movement’s occupation, said that Lu was “utterly ignorant” and that even former president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) had not had such authoritarian tendencies. In an interview with the Chinese-language Storm Media, Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌), the director of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology, sounded equally unimpressed with Lu. Echoing Huang, Hsiao called Lu ignorant and added that as a legislator, Lu should represent the people and not act as a mindless follower of his party. 
Weighing in, Modern History associate research fellow Chen Yi-shen (陳儀深) pointed out that the purpose of Academia Sinica as the “highest national research institution of the Republic of China” was to serve as the country’s top research entity. Consequently, academic freedom should be at the heart of Academia Sinica, he said, adding that caring for and paying attention to society were naturally part of an academic’s work and research.
Worryingly, Lu’s outburst appears to be just one in a series of attempts by the administration and its allies in the KMT to keep academia in line. In 2012, KMT Legislator Alex Tsai (蔡正元) threatened to slash the budget of the Institutum Iurisprudentiae in half if the institute’s research fellows continued to speak against the Want Want China Times Group’s attempt to purchase China Network System (CNS), which would have affected a quarter of households nationwide. Many academics from Academia Sinica were vocal in their opposition to the deal, which they feared would create a media monopoly by a company that had vast business interests in China. Besides threatening to slash the budget of the law institute, Tsai argued that it was none of the academic’s business to protest against a commercial merger and that the academics were motivated by anti-government media outlets for political reasons.
Notice from Ministry of Education to NTU
Back in 2010, the Ministry of Education had issued a notice to National Taiwan University (NTU) requesting the university to “reflect and improve the contents of its PTT Gossip board.” The ministry claimed the university’s Internet discussion board was permeated by “all kinds of political articles” and added that it hoped the university could rid the Internet forum of “political party employees” and create a “clean environment” for its users. The ministry further requested NTU strongly regulate posts that strayed from “academic and teaching purposes.”
The sustained efforts by the government to keep academics and students from engaging in politics and social issues with the threat of selectively limiting or curtailing the distribution of research and education funds — or simply by discrediting and smearing those who disagree with the government — are grounds for grave concern. It’s difficult to determine whether KMT Legislator Su is truly that ignorant about the fields of sociology and social sciences, or that he was merely attributing the blame for what he considers “social instability” to social scientists and their students. The notion that academics and students should stay within the confines of the university and research centers, or that they should only conduct research that is directed by an administrative entity, is absurd.
Social science is a vast discipline. It consists of many fields, including psychology, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, economics, political science, and law. It studies society, its institutions, and how and why people behave as they do as individuals or as groups within society. In order to study these essential elements of society and research the variables that affect these elements, systematic, vigorous fieldwork is always required. Whether they conduct surveys, interviews, or engage in participatory observation, being physically close to the research subject is key to the ability of social scientists to carry out robust research. To urge political scientists or sociologists to only “stick to research and academia,” or to order them not to care about the impacts of a certain policy is impossible, if not downright offensive.
Most importantly, academic freedom is one of the essential elements of a democracy. Such freedom gives academics the ability to investigate, examine, and present their findings without fear of being monitored, reprimanded, or fired when the conclusions are not to the government’s liking. It is also through academic freedom and openness that students are able to learn and discuss vast subjects inside and outside the classroom and make their own interpretations of various phenomena and theories. Academia is the first sector in which authoritarian governments extend their tentacles to restrict and control people’s thoughts. Taiwan prides herself in her democracy. Academics and students should be encouraged to care for and to participate in social issues and politics, whether they support government policies or not. They certainly should not be penalized for doing so.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Day in the Life of a ‘Li Zhang’

My article published at the newly launched Thinking Taiwan English platform with more photos.

Although we don’t see or hear them very often, the local pillars play an essential role within their communities and in election time. 
“Come in, come in! Sit down and have some tea!” the cheerful voice calls out as I open the door to Mr. Huang’s first-floor office just outside Taipei. On any given day, various members of the community gather at the table for pu’er tea, snacks, fruit, and sometimes alcohol. On the day of our appointment, Mr. Huang, or “Ah-Chuan,” as everyone calls him, was sampling white wine with his friends.

Ah-Chuan is head of a ward, or “Li” (里). According Article 59 of the Local Government Act (地方制度法), “Villages/Wards shall each have a chief of village/ward, who, upon the instruction and under the supervision of the mayor of township/city, or chief administrator, shall handle village/ward affairs and carry out commissioned tasks”. In other words, the job description of the head of a ward, or “Li Zhang,” is generic, which leaves plenty of room for the elected to maneuver on the community services he provides. A Li Zhang is elected every four years with no term limit. Case in point: Ah-Chuan has been the Li Zhang of his ward since 1981.

“I think of myself as part of the service industry, and I very much enjoy helping members of my community. I was born here, and my family is from here. I don’t get paid to do what I do. What I receive for my elected post is an operational fee of NT$45,000 per month, which I have to utilize wisely to pay office bills and other miscellaneous things.

“Oh! See that activity center next to this office? I helped get that for the people here,” A-Chuan explains proudly.

Li Zhangs like Ah-Chuan were a factor in Taiwan’s political fabric long before

democratization. They play an integral role in the electoral success of politicians and their parties, and did so even when the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was the only party running in elections. Under the previous multi-candidate system for legislative elections, the candidates were ranked according to the number of votes each received, and those with the largest numbers of votes were elected. In other words, KMT candidates relied on people like Ah-Chuan to promote them with the ward’s voters and to encourage them to vote for them. According to Ah-Chuan, his ward carries approximately 5,000 votes (about 1,900 families).

The Li Zhangs operate at what could be called the “super grassroots” level. Through his frequent interactions with the locals, Ah-Chuan is not only familiar with the members of the ward and their lifestyles, he has also established a sense of camaraderie with them. Throughout my visit with Ah-Chuan, I saw a constant flow of elderly residents who came to his office to use the blood pressure machine he had acquired for them. He always greeted them and asked about their health.

Ah-Chuan’s office is a trove of political memorabilia, photographs with central government

officials, awards for service and philanthropy, and commemorative plaques of excellence. There are also urns filled with expensive tea — Huang collects tea for a hobby — and statues of deities like Guan Gong and Matsu. There are also several CCTV monitors mounted on the wall, which allow Huang to keep track of the comings and goings in the neighborhood, or, perhaps more importantly, to see when a guest is coming.

As I entered Ah-Chuan’s office, I discovered that my cup of aged tea was already waiting for me at the table.

Our lunch consisted of a large bowl of the Huang family’s famous stewed pork and eggs, stir-fried cabbage and water spinach, stewed radish, fish, green onion and eggs, and two kinds of soup. The lunch guests were all members of the community and included the owner of a sound equipment company who often provides sound systems for political campaigns, a former head of the fire department in the district, a former KMT legislator, and an employee of the district government.

As the guests wolfed down the delicious local cuisine, the conversation focused almost exclusively on current political events, with a strong dose of political gossip.
“Eat more, eat more!” Ah-Chuan encouraged us as he dropped a stewed egg in my bowl. “These are just country dishes, but this is very Taiwanese! You won’t have them in America.”

Two police officers also showed up and informed Ah-Chuan that they were investigating a noise complaint from a ward resident and thought it best to visit the Li Zhang first, as he might be able to shed light on the matter. The officers said the complainant claimed he’d heard loud noises in the middle of the night, possibly from a mentally challenged person.

“There is no such person living in that lane,” Ah-Chuan said confidently as he waved his hand dismissively. “And I haven’t heard anything. You are more than welcome to investigate, but I know for a fact that no mentally ill person, or even a loud person, for that matter, lives in that lane.”

As he’d predicted, the investigation turned up nothing.

Numerous individuals came in and out of the Li Zhang’s office in the afternoon. One was tempted to ask how Ah-Chuan manages to keep track of everyone and everything. Asked about his daily routine, Ah-Chuan said, “I’m so busy. I am like a 7-Eleven, you know, like a convenience store. I offer all kinds of service to those who ask. I do everything around here, acting as mediator between two quarreling neighbors. If someone’s street light is broken, someone needs help filing his taxes, someone has questions about receiving public assistance or pension for the elderly, traffic accidents.”

Anyone who doubts that a single man can accomplish all these things need only look at his business card, on which appear no less than five titles, all dealing with community matters. Ah-Chuan also serves as chairperson of the District Dispute Committee (區公所調解委員會). The previous days, he’d had to help resolve a total of 33 disputes, and he did not hesitate to tell me how exhausting some of those meetings could get. But it matters: The decisions of those committees are binding and are recognized by the district court.
Ah-Chuan was also very keen to point out that he has no political party affiliations. He did admit, however, that the KMT city party headquarters had asked him to join the party on several occasions. Ah-Chuan nonetheless served as “consultant” in his district for the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九)-Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) ticket during the 2012 presidential election, though he quickly downplays his influence over voter decisions.

“Ay! Do you really think that I have that much influence over people?” he exclaimed when I asked him about lobbying votes for a particular candidate and party. “If I tell you to vote for someone, would you really listen to me? Of course, not! We’re in a democracy, and people vote however they want! Who’s going to listen to me?”

“Do you really think that young people are going to listen to me?” he said, throwing his hands up in the air in resignation. Maybe he was being a little tongue-in-cheek.

Some people refer to Li Zhangs as “Tiao-a-ka” (柱仔腳)in Taiwanese or “Zhuang Jiao” (樁腳) in Mandarin, which literally means a“pillar.” Politicians and political parties need these “pillars” to prop them up and keep them on the good side of the electorate both during and off election season. Ah-Chuan personally detests being called a “Tiao-a-ka,” as the term carries the connotation of vote buying and corruption, two things that continue to plague Taiwanese politics.

As much as Ah-Chuan hates to admit it, his views undeniably have a certain amount of influence over the residents he knows so much about.

When I press him to say something more about his political influence, he says that he provides “explanations” and “interpretations” of government policies to ward residents on a regular basis. While he doesn’t recommend any particular political candidates to the residents (even if they ask), he does tell them his opinion on which political candidate has a record of providing for and helping the community, he tells me. Raising his fist for dramatic effect, he then adds that Taiwan needs “a real man” to lead the country.

As I step out of his office into the scorching heat outside, Ah-Chuan calls out in a friendly voice, “Come back to have lunch anytime, OK?”

Foot soldiers like Ah-Chuan are almost invisible in Taiwan’s political scene, as they blend perfectly with the communities they live in. They are seldom in the news, yet despite Ah-Chuan’s claims to the contrary, the outcome of local elections is often determined by whether Li Zhangs like him favor a particular candidate over another. Unsurprisingly, almost every single candidate that Ah-Chuan has favored over the more than three decades he has served as Li Zhang has been elected.

Ketty W. Chen is Director of Research Programs at the Association of Public Issues Studies (TAPIS) in Taipei.

My pu'er tea

White wine sampling

The community gym inside of the community center
Closed circuit TV watching over the neighborhood
Ah-Chuan's famous milk fish rice noodle soup

Friday, April 4, 2014

Sunflower Movement Reflection

I was traveling between the States and Taiwan during the Sunflower Movement, and all the traveling didn't prevent me from being glued to the live feed from inside and outside of the Legislative Yuan during the time I was away. I had to take care of some family and work business in the U.S. before going to Taiwan to stay for the next couple of years. 

While in the U.S., I was invited to deliver two lectures on the social movements in Taiwan. The Sunflower Movement served as a great example to begin my lecture. I was also contacted by several international and US domestic media outlets (CNBC, Washington Post, Al-Jazeera, NPR) for interviews and for background information on the Sunflower Movement. What I realized again was the tremendous lack of knowledge about Taiwan outside of Taiwan. Moreover, the lack of accurate accounts of what exactly is happening in Taiwan is tremendous. Most who are reporting about Taiwan have very limited knowledge on who are the major movers and shakers, who are the active participants in particular events and what are the positions of major political parties and politicians.The mainstream media outlets in Taiwan is not helping with bridging this gap either. Therefore, due to this lack of knowledge and accurate information, it became exceedingly difficult for journalists, foreign academics and government officials to decipher between facts and propaganda.  More importantly, with such information lag, current and former U.S. government officials, often derive at far fetched conclusions on happenings in Taiwan. The lack of accurate information also prevents foreign government officials, policy makers and journalists from developing good analysis on the implications and significance of important events in Taiwan, for example, the Sunflower Movement

In the weeks of student occupation of the Legislative Yuan, I've been asked on numerous occasions on the reasons behind such endeavor, and I explained that the occupation did not just happen on a whim. It was the result of accumulation of lobbying and protests within the system, playing by the rules, submitting list of names to participate in the supposed "public hearings" with no avail. Most who interviewed me did not realize the infamous 30 seconds, where KMT legislator and internal administrative committee chair, Chang Ching-chung unilaterally declared the review as finished and sent the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement out of committee for vote. Some interviewer came with the preconceived notion that the occupation was orchestrated by the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) or by its former chairwoman, Tsai Ing-wen. Some asked if the protesters were anti-China and anti-free trade. I systematically informed those who are interested of hearing about my observation that, when it comes to Taiwan, nothing is simple. Issues are almost always multifaceted and there are always numerous variables at play. While there are some anti-free trade and anti-globalization elements within the occupation participants, one cannot generalize the Sunflower Movement as just an anti-China or anti-free trade movement. There was also the variable to wanting to maintain the quality of democracy in Taiwan, as well as secure procedural justice for government institutions like the Legislative Yuan. As far as the Taiwanese government's official position of accusing the student protesters as violent, unruly, unreasonable mob, there are plenty of videos on Youtube for one to see it for him/herself. There are also numerous videos of police brutality on the days of Marcy 23rd-24th. 

As I watched more than 350 thousand people filling Ketagalan Boulevard and the surrounding streets on March 30th, I was reminded the very first protest I documented on the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement in front of the Executive Yuan on June 24th 2013, the day before the agreement was signed. There were less than 20 young students and members of NGOs present. There were practically no media coverage of the event. The turn out on March 30th was incredible, it also was a demonstration and validation of the student activists' hard work in the past year. 

Again, as the international coverage and articles on the Sunflower Movement demonstrated, there is a pressing need for a channel or platform, where foreign journalists, academics, researchers, government officials, policy makers and Taiwan watchers, can turn to for concise and accurate reporting and on-the-ground information on Taiwan without the filtering of pan-blue or pan-green media. With the funding I have from my current position at a research institution, I am looking to launch a weekly or bi-weekly publication on the happenings of Taiwan. As events happen, for example, like the Sunflower Movement or the 7-in-1 local election, I would then publish more than once a week. The launch date of the first issue should be in mid-May.  I hope this endeavor will contribute to aiding the readers of my blog to further keep up with events in Taiwan as they unfold

Lastly, here are links to my interviews and video. Thanks for reading my blog entries and submitting your comments. The upcoming year in Taiwan will be an eventful one, so please stay tuned.

Taiwan's students head to the streets with sunflowers to protest closer ties with China
Protests in Taiwan against a controversial trade agreement with China
Taiwan's 'sunflower movement' wary of Chinese ties
Uprising Radio - Taiwan students protest against Trade Agreement with China

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Party-State Reemerge Through Education

My article published by the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute on Taiwan's high school textbook "minor adjustment" controversy.

Photo by J. Michael Cole
“Stop Colonial Assimilation Education! Give us back our curriculum!” on an early morning late last week, members of aboriginal rights groups and organizations gathered outside of Taiwan’s Ministry of Education (MOE) and chanted slogan in protest.
Geography professor Tibusungu Vayayana (汪明輝) of the National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU), said angrily that education for aborigines has long been stolen from them and replaced by Han-centered education. As a result, aboriginal youths had never been able to learn about their history, culture and language, and the government should put an end to the century-old culture genocide. Vayayana is the director of the NTNU’s Indigenous Research, a member of Alishan’s (阿里山) Tsou Tribe (鄒族) and was once a high school teacher. Vayayana was joined by members of the Indigenous Youth Front (原住民族青年陣線), Taiwan Indigenous People Society (台灣原社), Association of Taiwan Indigenous People Development (台灣原住民學院促進會), Indigenous People Action Coalition of Taiwan (台灣原住民部落行動聯盟), and the Association for Taiwan’s Indigenous Peoples’ Policy (台灣原住民族政策協會), among others.

The protest from the aboriginal community was only one of the series of protests prompted by the Ministry of Education’s so-called “minor-adjustment (微調)” of the high school textbooks in four subjects: Chinese language, civic education, geography and history.

Since mid-January, university professors, high school teachers, historians, students and social organizations took to the streets and congregated at the Ministry of Education to voice their concerns and discontent. Opponents of the revisions lambasted the Ministry of Education of “de-Taiwanizing (去臺化)”, “sinicization” and for “brainwashing” the students by manipulating history in order to spread the “Greater China Awareness(大中國意識)”. The adversaries also slammed the Ministry for disrespecting procedural transparency when approving the adjustments and condemned the administration for appointing assessment task force members based on their pro-unification ideology rather than the individual’s professional backgrounds and qualification.
“Violent and Convoluted Changes (粗暴亂調)” vs. “Bringing Order to Chaos (撥亂反正)

On January 27, two days prior to the Lunar New Year holiday, the Ministry of Education rushed through a review meeting and approved the “minor adjustments” for high school textbooks. The Ministry of Education officially announced the adjustments in late evening of February 10. The changes to the textbooks will be implemented this Fall for the new class of high school freshmen.

The late night announcement of the textbook adjustments was interpreted by the opposition as yet another “sneak attack” by the administration to force the adjustments and to avoid public scrutiny. During a press conference at the National Taiwan University’s Alumni Guest House, university professors, high school teachers, students and civic organization members said the changes are nothing but “violent and convoluted”, and the Ministry of Education behaved like a bully by rushing through the public hearing and approving the changes immediately. According to the representative from the Civic Teachers Action Alliance (公民教師行動聯盟), some teachers were notified only three days prior to the public hearing and learned of the adjustments, unlike what the Ministry has claimed that the notification was released months ago. National Taiwan University history professor Chou Wang-yao (周婉窈), who attended the protest outside of the MOE on January 27, also indicated that changing almost forty percent of the wording of Taiwan’s history, when only single digit percent of the Chinese history should not be depicted as “minor adjustments”. The opposition also questioned the legitimacy of the changes and the lack of procedural transparency.

Among the most controversial changes were, reference to China was changed to “mainland China (中國大陸)” instead of simply China. According to the opposition, referring to China as “mainland China (中國大陸)” implies Taiwan and China are of the same entity, and Taiwan is an island to the mainland. In addition, the Age of Exploration (大航海時代 ) is now changed to “The Han arrived Taiwan, Age of Exploration (漢人來台大航海時代)”, which according to history experts do not make much sense. Moreover, “Japanese Governance Period (日本統治時期)” is now changed to “The Japanese Colonial Governance Era (日本殖民統治時期)”. The “Qing Dynasty (清朝)” is now the “Qing Court (清廷)”, and the Cheng Family Dynasty (鄭氏統治時期) has been changed to “Ming [dynasty’s] Cheng Governance Period (明鄭統治時期)”. Furthermore, the Dutch and Spanish governing period (荷西治台) is revised to the Dutch and Spanish invasion period (荷西入台).

The critics argue that changing the name for the Cheng Family Dynasty period to the Ming’s Cheng Governance Period suggests when Cheng Cheng-kung (鄭成功 )established control over Taiwan, Cheng, a Ming Dynasty loyalist, did it as a representative of the Ming Dynasty. This adjustment, the critics say, implies China’s territorial ownership of Taiwan. According to history professor, Lee Hsiao-feng (李筱峰) of the National Taiwan University of Education, this particular change is historically inaccurate. Lee points out, when Cheng Cheng-kung arrived Taiwan, he founded a new kingdom in which he named Dongdu/Eastern Capital (東都)in the southwest part of Taiwan. Cheng’s son, Cheng Ching (鄭經) than changed the name of the kingdom to Dongning (東寧). The Kingdom of Dongning was then succeeded by Cheng Cheng-kung’s grandson. Cheng Ching once declared, said Lee, “Dongning is far out in the sea. It is no part of the territory of China. We have our own aristocracy. We have our own culture and these compare favorably with those of China (東寧遠在海外,非居版圖之中,王侯之貴吾自所有,衣冠之盛不輸於中土)”. For Lee, such adjustment is made to advocate President Ma Ying-jeou’s “Greater China” ideology and an effort by the KMT government to pander to Beijing’s unification ideology.

In addition to the revision on historical terms, critics also slammed the Ministry of Education for removing the term “White Terror” from the “Civic and Society” textbook and replacing the term with “The Government’s excessive used of power to oppress the citizens (政府濫用權力對人民的迫害)”. According to Professor Hsueh Huah-yuan (薛化元), Director of the National Chengchi University’s Taiwan History Institute, the section with discussion and critique of the development of human rights and civil society and movements after World War II were also removed from the “Civic and Society” textbook.

In response to its critics, the Minister of Education, Chiang Wei-ing (蔣偉寧), whose professional degree is civil engineering, says the adjustments were legally and lawfully proposed, discussed and passed to ensure the curriculum reflect the spirit of Constitution. The minor adjustments of the high school textbooks, according to the Ministry of Education, are the administration’s attempt to “bring order after chaos (撥亂反正)”. Chiang further argues that there isn’t any “de-Taiwanization as the opponents claimed but “a bit more ‘de-Japanization’.” The Ministry of Education’s Director Secretary, Wang Jough-tai (王作臺), an Atmospheric scientist, also says the previous textbooks placed too much emphasis on the arrival of the Dutch and Spanish, whereas the Han population arrived Taiwan even earlier than the Europeans. According to Wang, the Dutch and Spanish were invaders of Taiwan, so the language of the textbook should reflect them as such. Wang also emphasizes that the previous textbooks excessively beautified Japanese colonialism and failed to emphasize the Japanese oppression of the population on Taiwan.

On the other hand, critics argue the claim the adjustment was made to adhere to the Constitution is deceitful. The Republic of China Constitution was adopted in 1947, but members of the aborigine tribes and the Austronesian languages had been prospering on Taiwan for thousands of years. Moreover, critics also question the extent to which the Japanese rule can be tweaked to relate to the ROC Constitution.

Unqualified taskforce and Lack of Procedural Transparency

Another reason for the tremendous backlash on the “minor adjustments” is the composition of the ten-member assessment taskforce appointed by the Ministry of Education. The ten task force members are divided into four sub-groups: Chinese language, history, geography and civic education. Critics point to the lack of professional background and ideology biases among the task force members, questioning the extent to which none of the task force members is a historian and none possessed educational and historical professional background.

The most controversial appointment was the convener of the task force. Wang Hsiao-po (王曉波), who is a Chinese language and Chinese philosophy professor at Shih Hsin University. Wang is also the Vice Chairman of the Alliance for Reunification of China (中國統一聯盟). In addition, Chinese literature professor, Hsieh Ta-ning (謝大寧) Fo Guang University, is also the Secretary General of the Chinese Integration Association (兩岸統合協會). Pan Chao-yang of the National Taiwan Normal University’s Department of East Asian Studies, once remarked Taiwan shouldn’t form alliance with the United States or Japan against China; otherwise, Taiwan would become traitor to the Han ethnicity. Pan also advocated education reform in order to “bring order to chaos” and textbooks in Taiwan should be co-authored by academics from both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The division of the sub-group was also the subject of great criticism. Economics professor, Chu Yun-peng (朱雲鵬) was a member of the history sub-group and was also a member of the civic education sub-group, along with National Taiwan University political science professor Bau Tzong-ho (包宗和). Four out of the ten members are Chinese language and philosophy professors with no historian specializing Taiwanese history.

The opposition also accuse the Ministry of Education of bypassing procedures, hiding the changes and failing to notify high school teachers to participate in the public hearing. The opposition says the Ministry was only paying lip service to procedural justice. Working group convener, Wang Yin (王垠) who is also a principal of national Yilan Senior High School, said he was unaware of the content of the changes until he read them in the newspapers. According to Fu Jan University Professor, Chen Chun-kai (陳君愷), teachers were informed about the public hearing only after the deadline for registration has passed.

On-going Battle

Even though the Ministry of Education passed the textbook revisions, the battle between the administration and those who oppose to the changes is just beginning. William Lai (賴清德), Mayor of Greater Tainan, declared that his municipality will not adopt or implement the revised textbook guidelines. Subsequently, five other cities and counties governed by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Greater Kaohsiung, Yilan, Chiayi and Yunlin, also refuse to implement the new curriculum. Meanwhile, university professors, teachers and students continue to hold public forums and discussion panels to promote public awareness of MOE’s textbook revisions and to encourage citizens to sign an online petition for the government to drop the changes.

The DPP also filed a complaint with the Control Yuan against the Minister of Education for administrative errors. According to the DPP, it was the Minister’s intentional mistake that led to the passage of such changes. This past weekend, DPP legislators and the advocates opposing the “minor-adjustments” filed a lawsuit against the Minister of Education for forgery of documents. According to the plaintiff’s lawyer, Huang Di-ying (黃帝穎), the 43-member panel at the meeting convened by the Ministry of Education on January 27 decided to withhold endorsement for the proposed changes, yet the Ministry concluded that the panel members agreed to the changes.

Last Friday was the first day of the legislative session after the new year, and Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) was questioned by the opposition legislators over the textbook changes, when Jiang said he couldn’t understand what was wrong with the textbook revisions and procedures. The Premier then voiced his unfalteringly supports the changes. Jiang said the previous textbook examines history through a Japanese lens, not the perspective of the ROC or Taiwan. Jiang proclaimed that history needs to respect the facts and if “we couldn’t follow through [with the changes], it would be an insult to our ancestors and offspring”.

The Ma administration has already revised and implemented changes in high school textbooks in 2011, so there shouldn’t be an immediate or urgent need for more adjustments, especially conducted in such hurried manner. Interestingly, the revision of high school textbooks coincided with the administration’s acceleration of other agreements with China like the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement and the Trade-in-Goods Agreement. A recent poll conducted by the Taiwan Indicators Survey Research (TISR), after Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Minister, Wang Yu-chi(王郁琦) met with Zhang Zhijun (張志軍), head of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, in China last week, 82% of those between the age of 20-29 reject eventual unification with China. Additionally, the population who identified themselves as Taiwanese continue to increase in Taiwan. The cultural, social and political climate of Taiwan and China could not be more different. Under current circumstances, “brainwashing” of Taiwanese to become more Chinese would more likely be unsuccessful.

As the textbook adjustment battle continues, the DPP and KMT legislators came to a consensus last Friday to have the Ministry of Education invite history and civic education teachers, academics and members of the local government for a national conference to further discuss the adjustments. The DPP vowed to keep requesting the Minister of Education to report to the Legislative Yuan to answer questions regarding the adjustments before implementation. The issue of textbook adjustments will be an important issue to watch for the current legislative session in Taiwan as well as the progress of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Disgrace in Academia - Smearing of a Democracy Icon

Yesterday, at the University Administrative Meeting, the National Cheng Kung University’s administrative committee dismissed the name “Nylon Square or the Southern Bayan Square (南榕廣場)” for the newly finished plaza at the University – the reason being “Nylon Square” was too political.  In all, 3521 students voted in the plaza-naming event sponsored by the University, and 971 students voted to have “Nylon Square” as the name for the new plaza.

The student’s decision to put “Nylon Square” as one of the names in the lot was straightforward.  Nan-Jung “Nylon” Deng was a democracy advocate.  More specifically, as the editor-in-chief of the Freedom Era Weekly (自由時代周刊), founded by Deng in 1984, Deng was particularly active in his quest to promote “100% freedom of expression”. 

Deng received indictment papers for “Attempting to Commit Treason (涉嫌派亂罪)” from the Taiwan High Prosecutor’s Office in January 21st, 1989 for publishing then-Constitutional scholar Ko Sei-kai’s (許世楷) “Draft for New Taiwan Constitution (新台灣憲法草案)”.   At the time, advocates of Taiwan independence can still be charged under criminal code no.100 of the “Treason Punishment Act (懲治叛亂條例),” as the Kuomintang government still yet to abolish the “Period of National Mobilization to Suppress Community Movement (動員戡亂時期)”. After seventy-one days of barricading himself in his magazine’s office, Deng self-immolated when the police tried to smoke him out with fire and attempted to force their way into Deng’s office to arrest him.  Deng’s sacrifice is now regarded as one of the most seminal moments of Taiwan’s democratization.

Apparently, the administrators and some participants of the administrative meeting at the National Cheng Kung University, where Nylon Cheng once attended, disagreed.  The University President refused to admit the school’s refusal to acknowledge the votes from the student is undemocratic and warrants an apology.  He further joked that it doesn’t matter what the plaza is called, as some people still refer to “Liberty Square” as the “Chiang Kai-shek Memorial”, there is nothing preventing the students from calling the plaza “Nylon Square,” even if the name was dismissed.

What was even more appalling was the rant of history professor, Wang Wen-hsia (王文霞).  While claiming she’s been teaching 19th century European history, Wang described the naming controversy as a failure of education in history.  Wang expressed her doubts on Deng’s contribution to Taiwan’s democratization, arguing that Deng wasn’t the only one responsible for advocating freedom of press.  Wang further compared Deng’s self-immolation to that of a “Muslim Suicide Bomber (伊斯蘭的炸彈客)” and depict Deng’s behavior as someone throwing a tantrum after not getting what he wanted, like a young man who decided to commit suicide after his girlfriend left him, or a child who kills his parents after his parents refused him money.  Wang then argued Deng’s self-immolation is anti-democratic and demonstrated Deng’s lack of respect to life.

After reading the transcript of Wang’s rant and listening to the recording (From 19:40) of her tone, I was left appalled and flabbergasted. Wang claimed historical inaccuracies to the other meeting participants' presentation of what happened to Deng on the faithful day of April 7th, 1989, yet she provides no clarification or evidence otherwise.  She also attempt to cast doubt on whether the police did use fire tactic to force Deng from his office.  Wang further criticized students and society in general for not understanding the values of democracy and contended Deng’s behavior was violent and also an escape to the problems he was facing.

Wang’s reference the “Muslim Suicide Bomber” reflects her own ignorance to Middle Eastern politics, the Islamic religion, colonialism and the roots of suicide bombing.  It is essentially prejudice and racist.  I am not even sure if Wang even understood the extent to which individuals who decide to give the ultimate sacrifice arrive such decision for a cause they considered so important to the collective.  The light-hearted, half-joking tone when she said, “He’s just like those suicide bombers mah~” said it all.  It was also a demonstration of her own arrogance, callousness and disregard to Deng’s surviving family members.

Then, there was political science professor Jaung Fwi-taur (莊輝濤), who said “academia shouldn’t involve itself in ‘political conflicts’.” 

All this left me wondering, if academia is supposed to be neutral and shouldn’t involve itself in political conflicts as Mr. Jaung claimed, then what is the point to even have a political science department at NCKU?  The field of political science IS all about conflicts - from Constitutionalism to Public Policy, Public Administration to International Relations and Comparative Politics and even Political Philosophy.  Theories of Political Science are derivation of clashes of tradition, class struggles, and confrontation between states, individuals and agencies.  For someone who supposedly is a teacher of political science to deliver such comment, one has to wonder what is he teaching to his students in his classes then?

It is good to see the students of NCKU, with support and along with students from other universities and faculty members have been and are fighting back.  An alumni took down the characters for “Retrocession” last week on the NCKU’s Kuang-Fu campus to demonstrate the term “retrocession” is also a political term devised by the Kuomintang government to demonstrate Taiwan’s return to the Motherland, China.   Students also advocated the removal of Zhong-Zheng Statium (中正堂), as Zhong-Zheng is the name of Chiang Kai-shek, who did commit mass murders in both China and in Taiwan. 

As upsetting as some of the comments from the NCKU administrative meeting were, the positive aspects from the plaza naming controversy at NCKU is that it brought the authoritarian apologists to the surface and let the public hear them through their own mouths.  The controversy created a platform for youths and the general public to learn or revisit Taiwan’s political history, her difficult journey to democracy and those who sacrificed their lives and personal freedom to make it happen.

An university is a place of challenge, a place for students and faculty to exchange ideas and to cultivate breakthrough.  The idea that politics should be kept off campus goes complete contradictory to the existence of an university, and it is simply stupid. 

Visitors pay their respect to Nylon Deng at the Deng Liberty Foundation on the day of Deng's death

Nylon Deng's office was kept in the condition after his self-immolation

An older visiter of the Deng Liberty Foundation speaking to a student about democratization of Taiwan