This post comes out of an online conversation I had with an American friend yesterday. I quote his questions with permission. This conversation begins in media res, so if you need background into what students he’s talking about, or what protests I’m talking about, here are a few resources:
Democracy at 4am
Anger Grows in Taiwan Against Deal With China
What’s going on in Taiwan’s legislature? Five easy steps
‘Black-clad army’ rallies for democracy in Taipei
The answers are my own opinions and impressions. I’m responsible for whatever inaccuracies they may contain.
Is the Taiwanese democracy structured in a way that the students could build support and bring about the changes they desire through ordinary elections? Or is it impossible to influence through elections the offending policies?
The critical problem is the scale of damage to Taiwan that could be done by the president in the next two years before he must step down. He has next to no popular support or even much support from within his own party, but intends to push measures through regardless. To wait for elections is to wait too long. More agreements will likely be made in secret, and more protections on Taiwanese industries swept aside for little domestic benefit.
These protests, which seem sudden, have been building up for a long time.
Living there last year, I often wondered when people were either 1) going to feel too defeated to care anymore or 2) explode into bigger protests.
The authoritarian flavor of the government’s recent moves make it look like the KMT is returning to old habits from when it ran the nation as a one party dictatorship under martial law. The actions have been getting ever more egregiously in the favor of crony capitalism, pseudo unification with China in economics and media, and dismissive of any opposition without any attempt to engage with it.
Is the executive branch popularly elected or headed by a leader selected by the legislative branch?
The executive branch is popularly elected. President Ma won by roughly 800,000 votes in 2012.
So the country is very divided?
Two weeks ago I would have said a definitive yes. But there are new unions being formed that take different issues to heart than the traditional divide between the major two parties.
So I don’t know.
The country’s pretty united in disliking the president, at least. He had a 9% approval rating even before all this began on 3/18.
It’s an unprecedented, odd time for Taiwan and nothing’s clear yet.
Why occupy the legislature if the president is the problem?
Since I can’t guess at the motivations of the protestors, I’m going to try and give a couple facts leading up to the occupation which should help explain why the legislature was the target on March 18.
President Ma is also head of his political party, the KMT.
There have been huge problems with lines blurring between party decisions and national decisions again in recent years, such that one of President Ma’s top policy advisors (Rex How) resigned last year after feeling as if the chain of democratically elected decision making had broken down.
The trade pact was supposed to be debated line-by-line in the legislature, as per an agreement made between the KMT and the opposition party, the DPP, after the agreement was made with China, in closed talks, last June.
But after months of stalling on both sides, debate was closed on the issue without ever discussing it, and it was going to be brought to a vote, which would amount to a rubber stamp, because the majority of legislators are KMT and the president, as head of their party, had mandated they vote the party line, rather than with their constituents.
Protests grew outside among students using social media to call people to join them. The main group of students, which organized last year, clearly had bigger plan, and managed to occupy the legislature overnight.
The students said, among other things, that since the legislators wouldn’t talk about the pact, they’d demonstrate to them how civil conversations about legislation worked.
While there is definitely anger against the president, the legislature occupation has real reasons of its own, and it is also symbolic.
Does the KMT want closer ties with China than the ordinary Taiwanese? That seems strange to me given the history of the party.
The KMT has always been pro-China, in the sense that unification was seen as a given eventuality, although the how and when of unification has been a moving target.
As the Chinese Communist Party liberalized the economy from the 1980s onwards, China has grown wealthier and that money is incredibly attractive, politics be damned.
The polls for Taiwan show that most people are in favor of maintaining the “status quo” and not independence, but that’s likely because a move towards independence is guaranteed to get a military response from China as per the Anti-Secession Law of 2005
The young people occupying the legislature acknowledge that ties with China are a fundamental part of living in Taiwan. What they don’t want is for these ties to be negotiated behind closed doors without any option for public debate or legislative oversight.
Because, fundamentally, China operates on the basis of eventually absorbing Taiwan. It’s not possible to trust that what China wants out of a trade pact is in Taiwan’s best interests as a de facto independent state.
That doesn’t explain why the KMT is all buddy buddy with China, but honestly, I can’t understand why they’d want to do that when unification would slowly erode their power base.