Sic Semper Tyrannis: Fear or Loathing in Taiwan?

vulgarOver the past several days, the media both in and coming out of Taiwan have covered, with wildly varying degrees of accuracy and depth, what began as a student protest in Taipei and has since spread to other cities and involved larger segments of society. Many folks—scholars, analysts, average-Joe bloggers and commentators, journalists, politicians, and even well-known criminals*—have put in their two cents. I have refrained thus far from doing so publicly. However, a recent translation of a “viral essay” translated by the folks at Foreign Policy magazine finally coaxed a response out of me.

In it, a one Richard Chiou-yuan Lu writes that the protests are essentially the product of what appears to be a somewhat irrational fear of China among Taiwanese. This fear is the driving force behind the protests, Lu asserts, because

if the counterparty to the agreement were a country other than China—or a democratized China that would treat Taiwan as an equal and stop trying to achieve its political agenda through business, and didn’t want to swallow us up—we’d happily accept the pact. [If the pact were not with China but instead with] “Japan” or “the United States” in place of China—there would be no issue. When Taiwan signed a free trade agreement with New Zealand in June 2013, the public wasn’t out for blood then.

My biggest problem with this statement is not that it is incorrect per se but that it leaves out so many variables as to be, instead of instructive, utterly uninformative. Lu writes as well that

[m]any [Taiwanese] people don’t understand what the CSSTA [Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement] says, so some protesters don’t even know why they oppose it. No one in Taiwan dares to write in support of the pact because sentiment here has almost reached the point where anyone who dares to support the CSSTA is seen as a traitor. But could Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou really have been that flagrant in selling us out? If everyone believes that the agreement is bad for Taiwan, why did Ma insist on signing it?

Besides the fact that Lu does not substantiate his claim that Taiwanese are essentially ignorant of the contents of the agreement, he also casually skips over the much more daunting question: why has the public lost faith in President Ma and the Kuomintang (KMT) government? Without first asking this question, the final two sentences read like caustic condemnation of “irrational” and “ignorant” fools protesting because they have been misled or fickle twits posing as a roused rabble.

Let us start off by addressing certain aspects of domestic discontent with the Ma-led KMT government. A minority, although by no means a miniscule one, was opposed to a Ma presidency both in 2008 and 2012 to begin with, voting instead for the other candidates. This provides a base for discontent. Add, for example, perceptions that the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) has not provided the economic benefits the government promised it would but has instead provided both the KMT government and the Chinese government a coercive political lever over Taiwanese society (as its opponents said it would); shoddy handling of natural disasters; discontent over the use of nuclear power; heavy-handed legislative and administrative tactics; rising prices, due both directly and indirectly to government policy, along with wage stagnation (except for the wages of civil servants, which rise conveniently around election season); a slowing economy; illegal seizures of citizens’ land and/or property or land/property seizures without “just” compensation; corruption among officials; the use of political connections to allow certain companies, especially construction outfits, to obtain government contracts; a sense among some that either opposition parties do not really oppose or are hardly less corrupt than the government, or that they are utterly impotent; a feeling among some (and, I would argue, a growing number of the population) that they are powerless and that Taiwan’s political system is gradually returning to its authoritarian past; unjust and unreasonable sentences handed down to military officers responsible for the death of a young conscript; court decisions made by ultraconservative, pro-KMT judges; the strong opposition, primarily consisting of KMT politicians and their supporters, against equal civil-marital union rights for homosexuals; the general sense among many that the government cares more for the well being of Chinese and is more concerned about being accountable to China than to the domestic Taiwanese populace who elected them and to whom they are responsible—in short, a whole list of grievances that are either not at all or only remotely related to China, and one has an enormous array of reasons to protest. And the above list is by no means exhaustive.

In short, the current protest, while related to China, has many factors, most of which either have no relation or only an indirect connection to “fear” of China. To chalk the protests up to this single cause is at best overly simplified and at worst deliberately misleading.

I tend to blame resentment of domestic policy, resentment of China policy, and resentment of the box of an international environment into which Taiwan has been put—in short, not “fear of China,” although this certainly factors into the resentment of China’s policies and positions towards Taiwan and the government’s policies toward China. Rather than “fear” per se, this has generated a general sense of “resentment” or “loathing” of the overall domestic and international situation.

Many Taiwanese I have talked to who have been abroad recently have commented that their being Taiwanese means others equate them with being Chinese (that is, People’s Republic of China [PRC] Chinese, for anyone who would like to argue this point). Stories of dirty looks by Japanese officials before those officials realized that the Taiwanese visitors were not from the PRC, for example, have frequently been inserted into my discussions with those who have been to Japan over the past five years or so. Others have commented on how far Taiwan has seemingly fallen behind developmentally when compared to other countries it was once similar or even superior to developmentally; South Korea, for instance, once held in contempt by some here, has suddenly appeared to those who have been there recently to have leapfrogged Taiwan. Although these examples are anecdotal, because they have appeared in multiple conversations with different people at different times, they cannot be merely isolated incidents and the personal reflections of particular individuals alone; similar sentiments must exist elsewhere. Several discussants, in fact, were utterly shocked by their most recent experience; they had been to South Korea twelve years ago and felt they were then in a closed, somewhat backward society; the visit then, they said, made them feel proud to be Taiwanese. When they visited South Korea again roughly a year ago, they could not believe the difference: Taiwan had suddenly appeared the closed and backward society, while Korea had been transformed and far outpaced Taiwan. And indeed, many economic indicators substantiate the claims that South Korea is now superior developmentally. The conclusion I reached based on these conversations was the one all of the commentators repeated several times: What has Taiwan been doing these past ten years? How have our people fallen so far behind?

These perceptions only add to the discontent. Although it may not be fair to blame the government alone for these problems (and certainly the problem, if it began ten years ago, is certainly not the fault of the KMT alone), the sense is that the focus on rushing to the China market has left domestic investment as a secondary goal—and the perception that priorities are in this sense out of whack can, at least in part, be attributed to government policies which encourage closer relations with China.

Another point that needs mentioning is that the protesters, although supported to some degree by the opposition parties, appear to have organized on their own accord and at that spontaneously. That the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was not out front leading the charge but has, especially after this past Wednesday (March 19th), gradually grasped the gravity of the situation and sought to ride the wave so to speak politically demonstrates not only that the reports in the pro-KMT media as well as in China that this whole situation has been organized by independence forces are utterly false but also that the students themselves have attempted to keep a degree of distance between themselves and the opposition parties. Indeed, reports I have seen on social media from several of the leading protest groups (in Chinese) have been urging politicians not to take advantage of the situation and have instead been appealing to broader Taiwanese society.

Lu’s observation that the protest is essentially anti-Chinese because if the pact were with another country and not China there would be no protest is correct but unimportant. Lu would be dreaming if he were to believe that Taiwan could actually sign a similar agreement with the other two countries he mentions—Japan and the United States—and this would not be due to domestic opposition on Taiwan but, instead, due to opposition—that’s right—from China. This leads me back to my original assertion: the main anti-China elements that do exist are sentiments of resentment and anger, not fear, although fear certainly factors in to some degree. That Singapore and New Zealand have been to varying degrees successful in reaching accords with Taiwan is one thing, as those two countries do not directly concern the Chinese with regard to Taiwanese “splittism”; Japan and the United States, however, concern the Chinese quite a bit on this point. For the Chinese to allow Taiwan to drift between China, Japan, and the United States even unofficially would be anathema to China’s entire construct of Taiwan’s identity within the Chinese world.

I have in the past been a vocal critic of what I see as a general ambivalence and/or acquiescence  I am often met with in Taiwan. I cautiously (albeit somewhat pessimistically) support these protests because I find the protesters’ positions and their demeanor far more in line with freedom and liberty—and they are by far better people—than their counterparts in the government and even among the opposition parties. (I’ll get to why I am “somewhat pessimistic” about them in a moment.)

The above paragraph’s statements fly in the face of what some have protested as the undemocratic and “violen[t]” nature of the protests. Freedom and liberty are not bought and sold by leaders in high places; government offices are certainly not sacred no matter what leaders say or write. Freedom and liberty are paid for by the blood and sweat of those who protect them—to the death of those who fight to protect them if necessary. Politicians suck freedom and liberty dry and call it leadership. But enough of my ranting against government in general. My point here is only that regardless of what KMT hacks like King Pu-tsung say, the fact is that even though American leaders would not accept the occupation of the U.S. Capitol by protesters, as King asserts, American leaders—and this part King conspicuously omits—would also not survive the authoritarian, black-box manner in which the KMT handled this entire episode, from first blatantly lying about their willingness to go over the CSSTA clause by clause and then ramming the agreement through without allowing the clause-by-clause review they had promised. Forget the U.S. Capitol: if this were to happen in the States, I’m quite sure some groups in several states would be seeking secession from the Union and many—and I don’t mean a few hundred—would be camping on the National Mall, if not invading all of DC itself. It never occurs to tyrants that they are being tyrannical; or at least it is never fashionable for them to admit their tyranny. The protests are just the tyrants reaping what they sow: sic semper tyrannis.

All of this said, I am, as I mentioned, cautiously pessimistic about these developments. First, my observation has been and continues to be that there is no movement towards limiting governmental reach in Taiwan. How does this apply to the student movement? For starters, the KMT will continue to be the KMT—rough, authoritarian, strongly China-oriented at Taiwan’s expense—and the DPP will continue to be the DPP—inept, authoritarian in its own right, fraught with internal divisions and its own seniority-inferiority complex (that is, the old guard clinging to power at the expense of any innovation among younger members). In short, politics will not change in Taiwan. Nor will the workings of state institutions. The students have not pushed for institutional change, and the constitution is and will remain not a Taiwan constitution but, rather, a party-state KMT construct. And what really needs to occur—the development of a strong third party that advocates not necessarily independence or unification but real, fundamental domestic institutional change and limits on governmental and state reach; or, better yet, the abandonment of political parties altogether—will never occur, or at least it will not occur during this protest and will not occur until people look past subservience to tradition and authority and towards a new Taiwan without all the constraints imposed by the burdens of the past and, most importantly, the burdens of state and governmental authority. In short, a fundamental rethinking of what Taiwan is and what its people as individuals and a society represent, where they want to go, and how they want to get there is needed; this does not constitute a throwing off of the past but, rather, a throwing off of the burden of the past. A new constitution is only a start. But a real and fundamental change in the institutions and even the thinking of people needs to happen. This does not mean a full-blown imposition of Western ideology; it means basic introspection and a real desire to be free. In the end, I find that far too many simply love Big Brother.

Sadly, neither the KMT nor the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—nor, I am guessing, the DPP—desire this. That the KMT and probably the DPP do not want this is one thing, but that the CCP will not allow even a revision of the constitution for fear a new draft will veer towards “splittism” and independence is just one more reason why China is resented. In truth, China fears Taiwan. But more importantly, I think it is becoming ever more evident that both the KMT and the DPP will work to prevent anything of this nature from occurring. And as long as society is controlled by a party-state constitution and politics revolves around two political parties fighting for what scraps fall from the party-state table, Taiwanese will be doomed to resentment and loathing.

Why am I pessimistic? It is because without a fundamental rethinking as highlighted above, the future will remain too opaque, too murky, too uncertain. There is nothing to stop the KMT from, once the students do vacate the Legislative Yuan under the promise that the CSSTA will be reviewed clause by clause, once again going back on its word and this time making it impossible to reverse by outlawing any interference or by hunting down the people involved in the protests. Indeed, even “oversight” of the CSSTA consists merely requires the Executive Yuan to brief the Legislative Yuan about the agreement; no debate or vote is to take place, and certainly no real oversight. Without knowing this, any verbal agreement—like the one made that has gotten the KMT into so much trouble recently—can just be flouted later because, hey, we’re the KMT, and whatever we say is the law because the law itself is KMT law. Hunting down the protesters one by one may sound farfetched, but let’s remember that Taiwan is not yet three decades out of Martial Law. And what is more, the DPP is and remains impotent and utterly lacks any means—or, quite clearly, the will—to stop such actions. This DPP weakness is not merely electoral, let’s recall; it is constitutional and institutional.

Until real institutional and constitutional change occurs, loathing and resentment will permeate Taiwan’s political scene, whether one is discussing cross-Strait relations or domestic politics.

Even in the U.S. political system a strong third party has yet to emerge. One is needed there, too. But Taiwan should not wait to follow the U.S. example. It may not have time. And no matter what King Pu-tsung says about the U.S. system and thereby implying that Taiwan must follow the U.S. lead, the resentment of Taiwanese cannot wait. They are, as this administration and this political system has demonstrated time and again over the past seven decades, running out of time.

The Chinese have feared for decades a return to civil war, indefinite cross-Strait political separation, “peaceful [political systemic] evolution” in which Taiwan would likely play a part, and/or a Taiwan declaration of independence. Taiwanese have lived for decades in fear of sudden attack from their “brethren” across the Strait. These things are not new. Even the feelings of resentment noted in this post are not all that new. What is new? The intensification of the resentment over the past several years and the recent CSSTA trigger are what is new. The vulgar display of power is not new, but the resentment of authoritarianism and the general perception that authoritarianism is making a comeback in plain view (instead of the typical “black box” of Taiwan and especially KMT politics) is what is new. The question is whether the fix will be just one more short-term, stopgap covering over of the problem or a real effort to fix the more fundamental shortcomings and whether those proposed solutions actually achieve real results. Sadly, most of those in power have no desire or incentive to do more than a mere papering-over, and pressure from society incentivizes only the former because very little deep thought appears to be occurring where it ought to be. Until this is realized, resentment will not only linger but ultimately grow.

As in Howard Beale’s (Peter Finch) famous “mad as hell” speech in the 1976 film Network, I don’t know how to solve these problems, and indeed, it isn’t my place to do so. But like Beale’s speech, I do know that people first have to get completely fed up. Frustration must build to the point that not only individuals and groups but also the system itself cannot “take it anymore.” Each person who is fed up must realize that they are human beings, that their lives have value, and that their individual values are worth far more than any values the system itself claims to appreciate. These things are not the products of fear. If anything, fear is what keeps such thoughts simmering beneath the surface. Fear is what keeps such things from boiling over. Resentment, loathing—in short, utter hatred—is what forces an explosion. And this is something China may play a role in, but the chasms that are tearing open are domestic—and they are completely and totally justified and healthy.

* The attached photo shows pro-unification former Bamboo Union leader Chang An-le, the “White Wolf,” one of the most wanted fugitives in Taiwan, among the crowd during the protests.

Image courtesy of whoamagazine; originally a section of the front cover of Pantera’s sixth album, Vulgar Display of Power, released in 1992.