September 25, 2014, by editor

Sunflower Movement and the future of democracy in Taiwan… and Hong Kong

Written by Jean-Pierre Cabestan.

Having left Taiwan in 1998 after a five year stay there, I am more distant from every day’s political developments there. I am therefore somewhat hesitant to contribute to this blog. Of course, I have regularly returned to the island, and more often so since I moved back to Hong Kong in 2007. And I was there again in mid-September 2014 with a group of European scholars who every year is invited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of China (ROC) to get updated about Taiwanese politics and the relations across the Taiwan Strait. Thus, what follows is an outsider’s view.

I have to confess that I was initially rather suspicious of a movement that on 18 March 2014 challenged the legitimacy and the dignity of the Legislative Yuan (LY), the most representative and legitimate body of any democracy. It took some time for me to understand the reasons of the unprecedented occupation of the Taiwanese Parliament: the precipitous adoption by a handful of KMT legislators of the controversial Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) putting an abrupt end to the discussion, the hunger strike that three Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators, including Hsiao Bi-khim, had started a few days before just outside of the LY main building, the growing dissatisfaction with Ma Ying-jeou’s mainland China policy and the increasing role played by social movements in Taiwan particularly since the KMT’s return to power in 2008.

It is clear that the Taiwanese Parliament does not work well: procedures would need to be changed in order to both give more space to debates but also prevent never ending filibustering and paralysis. A clearer line should make a distinction between international or cross-strait technical agreements that do not require LY endorsement and treaties or politically more important accords that need to be ratified. If Taiwan wants to consolidate its democracy, it cannot go on with the current modus operandi: proper rights should be granted to the minority or the opposition parties while adequate procedures should be introduced to allow a smoother adoption of the bills and important agreements submitted to the parliament with the support of the political majority of the moment. The rules concerning legislators’ discipline and uncivilised behaviours in the LY should be implemented rather than ignored by the speaker, as it has too often been the case.

In most democracies, it is quasi impossible to penetrate in the Parliament. In Germany, the Bundestag has its own police force that only reports to and takes orders from the parliament’s chairman; it can easily prevent any demonstrator from approaching the building, and if instructed, can extent the 500 meter security perimeter usually imposed around the parliament’s premises. In France, though under the executive branch of the government, the Gendarmerie nationale operates along similar lines: demonstrations are very rarely allowed to pass by the National Assembly, let alone stay in its vicinity. In Taiwan, things are different and since the Sunflower movement, it does not seem that the LY leadership or the government, under which the LY police operate, has enhanced the security of the building. On Zhongshan South Road, just outside of the LY main gate, demonstrators and sit-ins are still authorized. And while the pan-blue camp legislators that I recently met told me that the police have been trained to react more swiftly and will be able to prevent any future occupation, I have serious doubt about its capacity and professionalism. It means that occupation of the LY can happen again. Is it a good thing? I am inclined to give a negative answer: the parliamentary majority may be again tempted to use all sorts of tricks to force the adoption of a bill or an accord. But it would be better for the legitimacy and the dignity of the LY if civic organisations and social activists use different methods, including other forms of civil disobedience, if they feel that they need to challenge a decision or a law that they consider unfair or dangerous for the country.

Having said that, the Sunflower movement has underscored the limits of Taiwanese democracy’s consolidation. The Kuomintang (KMT)’s privileged and “black box” relationship with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been an issue since Ma was elected in 2008 and even since Lien Chan in 2005 resumed party-to-party relations with the CCP. And today, elites politics in Taiwan tend to represent more the interests of the enterprises that have business relations with China than the society; it is also busier cultivating close relations with the CCP leaders than caring of the needs of the ordinary citizens; and the KMT has revived an old-fashioned Chinese nationalism — a kind of dahanzhuyi (Great Han chauvinism) to recycle a term used by Mao Zedong — that is totally disconnected by the islanders’ mainstream Taiwanese identity.

But the DPP has also been somewhat disconnected from the social reality and as a result the Sunflower movement. Contrary to what the CCP propaganda indicates, the DPP was not behind-the-curtain conductor of the movement. Though it later helped the LY occupiers, it reacted slowly and hesitantly to the movement’s demands, taking advantage of Speaker’s KMT Wang Jin-pyng’s opposition to any use of force to evict the students from the LY and attrition war with Ma Ying-jeou. As the KMT, the DPP is an aging party that has had difficulties keeping up with Taiwan’s new generation of political activists and social movements. For instance, while it continued to read and write in the Liberty Times (Ziyou shibao), young activists only consult electronic platforms as the Libao or New Talk. How the DPP can bridge these generation and political gaps in terms of means of communication and mobilisation remains to be seen.

Moreover, these trends have developed in the sluggish economic and social environment in which Taiwan has been stuck for a long time and which has aggravated rather than eased since the Ma government signed the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China in 2010.

The question today is whether the Sunflower movement will have a lasting impact. As May 1968 in France, such unexpected political explosions ignite and get extinguished rapidly. Then, the organisers of the movement get divided about organisation and objectives. Some are tempted to become politicians and set up a political parties, other prefer to concentrate on social activism outside of the political establishment, and other go back home and return to their usual activities or hobbies until another occasion for protest takes shape. In any event, the new political forces that will appear, probably after the 29 November local elections, will have to be organised, if they hope to become viable and sustainable, with the help of older and more experienced activists, as for example Lin Feng-cheng of the Taiwan Citizen Union (Gongmin zuhe). And whether they can become a meaningful political force in the LY (in other words reach the high 5% threshold in the LY party list) is far from being certain.

The former leaders of the Sunflower movement will continue to criticize the DPP’s increasing moderation towards China but they will rapidly realise that it is hard for Taiwan to ignore its powerful neighbour, let alone reduce its economic dependence upon it. Conversely, the DPP and even the KMT cannot carry on their political and electoral activities without taking stock of what happened in the spring of 2014. For instance, they are both working on introducing before coming back to any other matter, as debating again about the CSSTA, a new Cross-Strait relations Supervision Act. But there are nine different versions of this bill and this may keep the LY busy until 2016 and the new national elections.

And what about Hong Kong? Around 4 June 2014 and the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, some Taiwanese student activists tried to come to the PRC’s Special Administrative Region; some were admitted, other were banned from getting in. In any case, the Sunflower movement has been a source of inspiration for “Occupy Central with Love and Peace”, a movement that is asking Beijing to stick to the promises it made in the Basic Law and grant full democracy and meaningful universal suffrage not only for the election the Chief Executive but also the whole Legislative Council, Hong Kong Parliament. In the summer, quite a number of Hong Kong activists travelled to Taiwan and met with Sunflower movement participants.

Any chance for the Occupy Central organisers to penetrate in the Legislative Council, located on Tamar, is minuscule. But other forms of activism and possibly civil disobedience are currently taking shape, as many Hong Kong students launched a one week class boycott on 22 September 2014.

Of course, Beijing is not amused and has started to paint both the Sunflower and the Occupy Central activists as unruly and violent as the Cultural Revolution’ sinister red guards. The irony is that many of these ex-red guards, some of them having blood on their hands, sit in the CCP Politburo or Central Committee. In other words, the CCP leadership knows what it is talking about. But it does not or does not want to realise that the 2014 young Hong Kong and Taiwan young political activists are far from being tempted to worship their ex-God or any other charismatic leader and even further from ambitioning to impose a total “dictatorship of the proletariat” upon their enemies. In both places, the demonstrators just want to question an agreement or a political reform that they see as illegitimate.

Of course, there are important differences between Taiwan and Hong Kong in terms of objectives and expectations. There, while democracy has already taken root, the polity needs to be improved and the political elite has no choice but to take into account the new forms of social activism that have emerged. Here, the battle will remain for a long time focused on the establishment of a genuine democratic system, politically autonomous from the CCP. But in both culturally Chinese territories, the youth has gone on the street to demonstrate to the elder generations that rule them that they are interested in politics and have become a force to be reckoned with.

Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan is a Head of the Department of Government and International Studies at the Hong Kong Baptist University. He is co-editor with Jacques de Lisle of Political Changes in Taiwan Under Ma Ying-jeou.

Posted in Sunflower MovementTaiwan