TDB Vol. 1 No. 12: Young Activists Fight for Democracy in Asia

TDB Vol. 1 No. 12: Young Activists Fight for Democracy in Asia

Following a nine-day workshop in Taipei, a group of young democracy activists from around Asia elaborated various strategies to tighten regional cooperation and facilitate information-sharing in times of democratic recession. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

At the conclusion of a nine-day Asia Young Leaders for Democracy (AYLD) program hosted by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) in Taipei earlier this month, young participants from around Asia issued a document that is known as the AYLD Declaration. Covering a wide range of issues, the declaration was drafted by the 20 participants, most of whom come from countries that face many challenges in achieving or sustaining democracy.

In itself, the fact that a declaration was issued by a group of young people with different national backgrounds can be hailed as an accomplishment. As many of us know, consensus is rarely the outcome of official region-wide conferences.

Still, adopting a declaration that could be approved by all through a democratic process nevertheless proved challenging, which the young democracy advocates knew all too well from their own experiences back home, where efforts to discredit democracy have been gaining momentum. As the democracy-skeptic camp often argues, efficiency, ostensibly key for development, often suffers from long democratic procedures; so if a trade-off at the expense of democracy is the inevitable cost, then so be it.

Consensus-building isn’t easy, even among ardent supporters of democracy.

“Democracy needs time,” the participants admitted. And as if to prove this, they requested more time to arrive at a final draft of their declaration. Notwithstanding the delays, the young participants were keenly aware that the case for an alternative model to democracy — autocratic governance — is based on a “false promises of economic prosperity and national glory (Clause 1).”

While some efficiency must be sacrificed for the sake of democracy, the “best solution” is not, and never was, what democracy is about, as one participant said during the discussions. Another cited Winston Churchill, who once famously said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

As democracy is said to be in recession with the rise of “illiberal democracy,” the young democracy leaders responded to the trend with an emphasis on fighting disinformation and extremism (Clause 2 & 3), which serve as incubators for and are the product of illiberal democracy, respectively.

The declaration also contains much evidence that the young democracy leaders fully understand what democracy is not: majoritarianism with the majority having all the say. Votes may be necessary, but deliberation and compromise among groups and people, with members of a program or a community having equal rights and access, are indispensable.

The rights of minority groups and political participation have to be guaranteed (Clause 4 & 5): “All human beings, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability, age, language, religion, social class, sexual orientation and gender identity, deserve equal rights and equal dignity,” the declaration says, following a debate on whether “women’s political participation” should enjoy a highlighted focus with a separate clause.

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

“Democracy needs time” could also be taken to mean that the realization of true democracy is a long haul that requires people, especially the young, to resolutely and actively engage in monitoring, maintaining and improving the democracy agendas in their respective countries.

The task, however, can be particularly daunting for those who live in countries where governments wield power without proper checks and where people in general are ignorant about (or nonchalant) human rights violations. Inter-country and regional alliances and cooperation are therefore essential for activists and dissidents for the sharing of hands-on experience and solidarity building.

To this end, the 2017 AYLD participants came up with three action plans to strengthen the network they creatdd during the program and the principles they have vowed to uphold in the declaration.

The Asia News for Democracy has been set up and will serve as a platform for Asia-related news-sharing to enhance regional partners’ understanding and facilitate networking initiatives.

Moreover, two types of workshops have been proposed to promote democracy and its consolidation: a workshop at the country-level on disinformation for schools and organizations to improve young people’s information literacy and skills to combat “fake news”; and regular regional joint workshops to building regional communities and share first-hand information to young human rights defenders, with a focus on cyber security, utilization of new technology, legal training and protest-organizing strategies.

AYLD participants break into small groups as the project drafts its declaration.

The people behind the idea of holding regional workshops also agreed that lessons can be learned not only from what works, but also from failure. Stories of botched-up tactics and flops can be just as educational and rewarding as those touting successes. In the long run, they said, failure can be a series of steps and milestones leading to success.

Two visits by AYLD members — to the Jing-mei Human Rights Memorial and Cultural Park and the Nylon Deng Memorial Museum — drove in the fact that failure can be but a temporary setback. While both sites are dedicated to activists and dissidents who “failed” in the face of an authoritarian regime, today they are now remembered with respect and pride, and the principles they fought for have prevailed over the forces of repression that, at the time, seemed implacable.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 11: Memory, Amnesia, and Martial Law in Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 11: Memory, Amnesia, and Martial Law in Taiwan

As Taiwan marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law, much still needs to be done to ensure that a proper account of what happened is given as the memories, victims and perpetrators fade into the past. Alison Hsiao reports.

 

It was 1980, a year after the Formosa Magazine Incident. Still in high school, Chen Tsui-lien (陳翠蓮) was asked to “serve the country” after enrolling in university.

Her mission? To “catch the bad guys,” like those involved in the Formosa Magazine Incident, who, according to the school discipline director, were captured thanks to the assistance of many “patriotic youths.”

Selected by the system, Chen said was proud to be one of the students chosen for the spying assignment.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the lifting of Martial Law in Taiwan, which had been declared in 1949. To coincide with various commemorative events this year, the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (TATR), an organization dedicated to transitional justice in Taiwan, has launched an initiative calling on “ordinary people to share their memories of the Martial Law period.

During her high school years, immersed in an educational environment closely monitored and calibrated for collective action and inebriated with stilted patriotic refrains, Chen, now a history professor at National Taiwan University, was a what we could call a “defiant” daughter: she was appalled by her father’s criticism of nationalistic songs and accused him of being “unpatriotic.”

Professor Chen Tsui-lien tells about the state’s attempt to recruit her as a spy during an event organized by the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (photo courtesy of TATR).

“My parents couldn’t sleep at night after I told them how excited I was that I was going to help the country,” Chen said of her spying assignment during a talk organized by TATR last month.

Chen’s father, however, explicitly told her that she should not accept the school director’s offer. “You’re out of your head for wanting to go. You will be responsible for many lives,” he said.

“I cried so hard because this ban,” she told a laughing crowd.

Chen is among the lucky ones who eventually sensed “cracks” in the Potemkin village created by the authoritarian government’s propaganda later in her college years.

“Once you noticed the inconsistencies in their narratives, there was no turning back,” she said.

But “sensing cracks” was far from ordinary. While there indeed were hot-blooded activists who were extremely committed to fighting authoritarianism, several others — like Chen’s parents — only secretly harbored an attitude of resistance. And then there were the “free riders,” those for whom the TATR event would be more appropriately titled “ordinary people’s no-memory of the Martial Law period,” said NTU history professor Chou Wan-yao (周婉窈).

“It’s undeniable that in the latter part of the Martial Law period, which overlapped with an era of high economic growth, many were occupied by the sole idea of making money and accustomed to the life under Martial Law,” Chou said.

Admittedly life could be pretty safe — as long as you stayed away from the “unpatriotic activities and riots that disturbed social stability,” which is how resistance was portrayed by the regime. The mentality explains why many Taiwanese, especially those who are now in their 50s, remember pre-Martial Law life with nostalgia.

“There is a reason why Taiwan’s democratization has been called a ‘quiet revolution,’” NTU political science professor Huang Chang-ling (黃長玲) said. “And this trait does make the country’s transitional justice harder to achieve.”

The problems arising from historical amnesia soon manifested themselves after TATR invited ordinary people to share their stories online and to present (if they had any) memorabilia to accompany their narratives.

Among the items posted was an encyclopedia with blacked out, or “sanitized,” entries about the People’s Republic of China that attested to the era’s censorship. Other participants shared their memories of being indoctrinated with Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People at school, being punished for speaking “dialects,” or even being forced to tear out the star logos (unfortunately red) printed on their Converse All Star shoes.

A ‘sanitized’ version of the Encyclopedia Americana, with passages blacked-out by state censors. The encyclopedia is kept at the National Chiao Tung University Library (photo courtesy of TATR).

Soon enough, the stories attracted criticism by people who accused the witnesses of lying and fabrication. Some questioned the authenticity of memories they said cannot be verified, while others turned to their own memories and stated that since they did not experience such traumas, the stories must therefore be fake.

The attacks forced TATR to issue a statement calling on netizens to respect the diversity of memories of life under Martial Law held by people from different regions, generations and groups, and not to dismiss other people’s life experiences.

“The same questioning logic can always be applied to the questioners themselves,” it said.

“Contemporary studies of personal and collective memories indicate that how the past is narrated can indeed be influenced by the time and situation in which the memories were told, the passage of time and the interaction between the narrator and the hearer,” it said. “But the past is not easily the product of manipulation in a democratic society where files are declassified, different groups of people’s memories are told and historical studies are done in an open and free academic environment.”

When “ordinary people” debate past events, what is really at stake but still lacking is a national report by the government detailing how many people were executed, jailed (and for how long) and subjected to surveillance, and how the institutions behind these operations played their roles and coordinated with each other.

“The state may have offered compensation to the victims of the White Terror, continues to declassify files, maintains historical sites and has even published the victims’ memoirs and interviews, but it has otherwise been completely silent about its past crimes [as an authoritarian regime],” Huang said.

“The public’s understanding of the White Terror has become hollow,” she said, adding that the victims are now little more than “elders in the family.”

People today mostly hear about the White Terror through stories that come up, inadvertently or not, during family conversations, which also refer to the persecutors as “the evil KMT.”

“It’s not exactly wrong to think of them in that way,” Huang adds, “but it certainly shows that the issue of state violence and its complexity has not been truly deliberated and reflected upon.”

Huang Chang-ling speaks during an event organized by the Taiwan Association for Truth and Reconciliation (photo courtesy of TATR).

TDB Vol. 1 No. 10: Taiwan Confirms China’s ‘Black Hand’ Behind Anti-Reform Protests

TDB Vol. 1 No. 10: Taiwan Confirms China’s ‘Black Hand’ Behind Anti-Reform Protests

Using ‘content farms’ and other means, Chinese elements are suspected of generating much of the disinformation that has been circulating concerning the Tsai administrations’ pension reform plans. They have also helped mobilize protesters. J. Michael Cole looks into this worrying interference in Taiwan’s democracy. 

 

Taiwan’s national security apparatus on Monday confirmed that a recent wave of increasingly virulent protests against President Tsai Ing-wen’s pension reform efforts have been influenced by China.

According to government information, Chinese elements (presumably agencies involved in political warfare) have played a role in mobilizing protesters and spreading disinformation about pension reform via electronic media. Various web sites, as well as the LINE instant communication tool, have been used to disseminate “fake news” about the government’s plans. The national security apparatus has confirmed that the information originated in China.

Besides domestic online platforms, China has also been using microblogging sites in China, as well as WeChat and popular “content farms” (also known as “content mills”) such as COCO01.net to spread disinformation and interfere with government policy back in Taiwan.

Content farms are platforms that pay large numbers of freelance writers to generate large amounts of content that is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines. While such platforms were initially designed to generate advertising revenue, groups and regimes have quickly realized the potential of content farms to manipulate public perceptions. Using techniques that have been tried and tested by authoritarian regimes in Russia and China, “repeater stations” — online and traditional media that willingly take part in “fake news” efforts or that fail to properly corroborate information — are then relied upon to broadcast the disinformation to a wider audience.

On several occasions, anti-independence slogans were chanted at the protests against pension reform, which also suggests that the movement has been co-opted by the Chinese side.

▶︎ See also “TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill”

Over the past six months, members of Chang An-le’s (“White Wolf”) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) have also been identified at various protest sites. Chang, who in an interview with foreign media in 2014 confirmed that he works closely with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO), led members of his organization at an anti-pension reform protest outside the Legislative Yuan in April. Since 2013, the CUPP has also been involved in activities targeting independence activists and members of civil society in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Chang is also a former head of the Bamboo Union, a major crime syndicate in Taiwan with roots in China.

Physical violence is also a m.o. of those organizations, and the protests against pension reform have often led to violent clashes, resulting in injuries. Other organizations with a history of violence, such as the deep-blue Blue Sky Alliance, have also participated in the protests.

Worryingly, protest organizers appear to have insiders in Tsai’s security apparatus — retired members of the police and national security apparatus ostensibly still have good contacts within the active force — and on several occasions have been able to obtain details about her daily schedule and itinerary. The groups have threatened to shadow President Tsai and Vice President C. J. Chen and thus could compromise the leadership’s personal security. Last week organizers also threatened to disrupt the upcoming Universiade in Taipei.

Taiwanese authorities have been closely monitoring the developments and have implemented measures to counter the disinformation.

 

Top photo: Members of the China Unification Promotion Party protest outside DPP headquarters in 2015 (J. Michael Cole).

TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

TDB Vol. 1 No. 9: Pension Reform: A Bitter but Necessary Pill

When President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) delivered her inauguration speech after being sworn in as Taiwan’s first female president on May 20 last year, she pledged to build a better nation for younger generations. The first and foremost task in fulfilling that goal, she said, is to reform the nation’s cash-trapped pension system that would otherwise go bankrupt within a decade. Stacy Hsu looks into the history of and the many challenges associated with this endeavor.

 

Before the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-dominated legislature passed the pension reform bills targeting retired civil servants and public-school teachers amid fierce protests in late June, the country’s pension system was a “political time-bomb” that many leaders before Tsai had tried — and failed — to defuse.

At the center of the problem are two notorious absurdities in the pension schemes of retired military personnel, civil servants and public-school teachers: the so-called 18% preferential interest rate and abnormally high income replacement ratios.

The preferential interest rate can be dated back to as early as 1960, when Taiwan was under authoritarian one-party rule. In light of inflation and the relatively low salary received by public servants back in the day, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime issued a series of administrative orders to offer a preferential saving rate on civil servants’ pension payments in a bid to ensure their financial security after retirement.

According to the Examination Yuan, the administrative body in charge of managing public servants, the saving rate has undergone several adjustments since its introduction, from the initial 21.6% to 14.25% in 1970, 16.7% in 1979 (with the rate floor at 14.25%), and then to 18% (also the rate floor) in 1983.

The preferential interest rate was scrapped following the implementation of a new pension system in 1995, which increased civil servants’ pension benefits by allocating part of their monthly income to the pension fund, rather than relying on the government as the sole contributor.

However, it did not quash the controversy surrounding it, as public servants who were hired before 1995 were still entitled to the saving rate after retirement. (The amount of a retiree’s pension payment that is eligible for the interest rate depends on a public servant’s pre-retirement income and number of years of service prior to 1995.)

The meeting minutes of the Presidential Office’s Pension Reform Committee show that as of June last year, approximately NT$462 billion (US$15 billion) in pension payments from about 457,000 public-sector retirees were stored in bank accounts eligible for the 18% interest rating, putting a NT$82 billion dent in government coffers each year.

The committee’s deputy convener, Lin Wan-i (林萬億), estimated that the interest rate would not really become history until 2054.

Though the saving rate had its historical necessity, today it is mostly seen as a remnant of Taiwan’s authoritarian era, one of the roots of social injustice, and a form of political payout by the KMT to cement support among the nation’s civil servants, which has in turn created an uneven playing field for political parties.

Due to the preferential interest rate and/or public-sector employees’ ostensibly “unfair” pension calculation formula, some of their actual income replacement ratios (the percentage of one’s pre-retirement income) could be over 100%. This means they could earn even more in retirement than they did when they were on the workforce.

In 2006, despite leading a minority government, president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) of the DPP sought to reform the preferential interest rate. However, instead of gradually phasing out the rate, he only managed to cut down on the amount of pension payment from which a retiree could earn the interest rate by putting a cap on their income replacement ratio.

Chen’s successor, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the KMT, also made pension reform one of his policy priorities, describing the problem as so dire “people will regret it tomorrow if we do not reform it today.”

The Ma administration established a pension reform task force to solicit public opinions in 2009 before rolling out a draft plan in 2013. Despite the efforts, the plan was stalled at the KMT-dominated legislature at the time — allegedly due to electoral concerns and overwhelming criticism of what president Ma called a “painful decision” to cut year-end bonuses for public-sector retirees in 2012.

Failed efforts by her predecessors and fears of further alienating the DPP among public servants should have deterred President Tsai from making another attempt. Instead, she put pension reform at the forefront of her policies and joined hands with DPP lawmakers in ramming pension reform bills that many deem drastic through the legislature.

Under the bills passed so far, the 18% preferential interest rate will be reduced to zero two years after the bills’ promulgation scheduled for July 2018.

In addition, civil servants and public-school teachers (the draft bill for military personnel is yet to be drawn up) will see their income replacement ratio reduced to 60% within 10 years and ultimately be required to calculate their pension payment based on their average monthly salary in the final 15 years of employment, rather than their last month of service as currently stipulated.

Tsai’s reform success has reflected in her approval ratings. According to a survey by the TVBS poll center on July 12, the president’s support rate has climbed to 29%, from 21% in June.

Such efforts, however, are not without their costs. President Tsai has been shadowed by anti-reform protesters, some of whom have threatened to use violence or to disrupt events such as state visits by foreign presidents or the upcoming 2017 Universiade in Taipei. Two pan-blue parties, the KMT and its spin-off, the People First Party, are mulling filing a request for a constitutional interpretation on pension reform legislation.

Just as in other countries, pension reform is almost always a magnet of unpopularity and fierce protests. A good leader will know when to overlook temporary noises and focus on the long-term good.

TDB Vol 1. No. 8: An Enabling Environment for Civil Society Organizations in East Asia

TDB Vol 1. No. 8: An Enabling Environment for Civil Society Organizations in East Asia

Amid a worldwide deterioration in freedom of association and expression, civic activists must urgently discuss how a more enabling environment can be created for civil society organizations (CSO). Last month, a Taiwan Alliance in International Development (Taiwan AID) workshop, co-sponsored by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, provided such an opportunity. Alison Hsiao gives the highlights.

 

About 6 billion people live in countries where civic space is either closed, repressed or obstructed, according to the latest findings by the CIVICUS Monitor made public in April.

“Only 3 percent of the entire population around the world live in countries where space for civic activism is truly open,” Henri Valot, lead adviser at USAID’s Voice and Accountability, Accelere Education Programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told a workshop in Taipei last week, citing the report.

According to Maria Teresa Lauron, co-chair of CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness, there is a global trend toward shrinking and closing civic space, with governments “not only in the south but also in the north” implementing restrictive laws hindering and disabling conditions for CSO formation, registration and operation.

 

Asia

Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-ruled China is known for the limited maneuvering room for NGOs and civic movements. It has recently attempted to further restrain civic activities by unveiling, in April 2016, the Law on Management of Domestic Activities of Overseas Non-governmental Organizations.

The law requires overseas NGOs, which arguably have enjoyed more freedom in China and therefore have served as a critical source of resources and information for domestic NGOs, to report to the Ministry of Public Security rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs as domestic NGOs must do, and to find a sponsor or “business supervisory unit” for registration, according to Chan Kin-man (陳健民), associate professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and co-founder of Occupy Central with Love and Peace.

“The sponsors could be difficult to find as they would have to shoulder political responsibilities [if the NGOs cross Beijing’s red lines],” Chan said, adding that exceptions are possible for “sponsors” seeking financial opportunities in those NGOs and for those that have guanxi (political connections).

With recent developments surrounding the new legislation, “the grey area that Chinese NGOs used to enjoy is disappearing,” he said.

“The large third sector is expanding, but civil society is actually shrinking in China,” as Beijing continues to crack down on dissenting groups while supporting “governmental non-governmental organizations,” a term Chan used to refer to “NGOs” supported by government funding and which therefore adhere to the government’s agenda.

Linh Phuong Nguyen, executive director of the Research Center of Management and Sustainable Development in Vietnam, also told of the barriers facing CSOs in Vietnam.

Vietnamese CSOs, like their counterparts in China, need government approval before receiving international aid, she said, adding that it usually takes six months to a year before permissions can be obtained — if at all.

A draft law of association was put forward by the Vietnamese government in 2016 — “supposedly committed to creating an enabling environment for the CSOs, but in reality, there was no outside participation in the drafting process” — and if passed, would create a more restrictive environment for CSOs, Nguyen said.

Linh Phuong Nguyen, executive director of the Research Center of Management and Sustainable Development in Vietnam, discusses tightening regulations in Vietnam.

The situation is equally dire in the Philippines. Despite his earlier announcement on negotiating peace with the country’s communist groups that have been waging armed resistance for the past 48 years, “[President] Duterte announced [in May] that he’s going after human rights defenders” and “[just in the night before the workshop took place on May 24], martial law was declared in Mindanao,” Lauron said.

As the above cases make clear, the development of civic space in Asia faces extraordinary challenges. According to the CIVICUS report, none of the Asian countries is in the “Open” category in the civic space tracking chart, with the best performers in Asia — Japan and South Korea — categorized as having a “Narrowed” civic space. (The conspicuous absence is Taiwan, which is colored grey, without information on the evaluation map.)

According to the CIVICUS report, none of the Asian countries is in the “Open” category in the civic space tracking chart, with the best performers in Asia — Japan and South Korea — categorized as having a “Narrowed” civic space.

Akio Takayanagi, policy adviser at Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation, outlined the depressing state of affairs in Japan, which is generally regarded as a developed democracy, citing the World Press Freedom Index that put Japan in 72nd place in the ranking of media freedom in 2017, a stunning gradual downgrading from 11th spot in 2011.

Additionally, an “anti-conspiracy bill” — pushed by the Japanese government and passed by the House of Representatives — could “lead to undue restrictions to the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression,” United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy Joseph Cannataci warned.

If it becomes law, the bill will allow the authorities to “criminalize acts of preparation to commit crimes such as terrorism,” Takayanagi said.

 

The Taiwan model

Left out by the global assessment, Taiwan has proven an encouraging exception to regional and global trends.

Tracing the transformation of CSO-state relations in Taiwan, Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌), distinguished research fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, said that beginning with the democratization movements in the 1990s, the country’s CSOs have moved from external control to free association and self-governance, from state monitoring to self-discipline and accountability, and from state dependence to public empowerment.

Nevertheless, there are problems that need to be resolved to ensure a better functioning of CSOs in Taiwan and to strengthen its civic space. Jay Hung (洪智杰), Taiwan AID executive director, noted that while most CSOs in Taiwan align themselves with government requirements concerning internal management, “disclosure of financial reports and work plans to the general public, however, is not mandatory,” which could generate doubts with the public.

There is also the problem of “being strong in domestic affairs but lacking in global thinking and actions,” said Chien Shiuh-shen (簡旭伸), a professor of development geography at National Taiwan University, adding that activists over the years have sometimes worked too closely with the long-time opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and lost momentum after the DPP assumed power for the first time in 2000.

Chien Shiuh-shen of National Taiwan University discusses the ‘Taiwan model.’

But the second democratic “alternation of ruling party” in Taiwan in 2016 has helped push legal and social change, which bodes well for the country’s civic space.

Amendments to the Civil Association Act, which regulates all “people’s groups” including political parties, civic groups and occupational associations, as well as new laws mulled by the government, would further strengthen regulations governing NGOs by enhancing their transparency and changing the language governing the establishment of civil associations from “applying for approval from the authorities” to “registration.”

Activists and CSOs have also “learned the lessons” from their experiences during the first transition of power, including the notion that they should “never say yes to the government all the time,” even if the ruling party was once an ally, Hsiao said.

Chien cited the ruling by Taiwan’s Judicial Yuan on May 24 in favor of same-sex marriage as a demonstration of Taiwan’s profound social progress, three decades after the lifting of martial law.

This is an experience in development that can be shared among Asian countries as the “Taiwan model,” he said, “which is in the social dimension” and is different from the “four tigers” type of economic model upheld in the past.

 

Enabling environment for CSOs

Besides sharing the Taiwan model, there exist global frameworks that, if observed, could help create a more enabling environment for CSOs, among them the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

Goal 16.10, which encourages governments to “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms,” and Goal 17.17, which urges governments to “Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships,” for example, are civic-space promoting, said Douglas Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, USA.

Anselmo Lee, secretary-general of the Asia Democracy Network, also weighed in.

“We have to remind the governments that it is their legal obligation” to follow those frameworks developed by the global organization of which they are members, he said.

Meanwhile, the mere presence of regulatory or policy frameworks, or more quantifiable socio-economic development (GDP, life expectancy, literacy and so on), which some argue indicates the existence of an enabling environment for CSOs, may fall short of being comprehensive, Valot said.

The capability approach, first conceived by Amyarta Sen in the debate on welfare economics and defining individual’s wellbeing in terms of their capabilities to achieve their goals, has been applied to assess the environment for civil society, Valot said. It not only means that the socio-economic environment, which should include gender equality and equity in general, but also socio-cultural (participation trends, tolerance, trust), political/governmental and legal environments (civil society infrastructure, state effectiveness, policy dialogue, rule of law, and so on), have to be taken into consideration, he said.

Henri Valot, lead adviser at USAID’s Voice and Accountability, Accelere Education Programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, discusses the widening gap between countries and social groups.

Cultivating an enabling environment therefore requires both government input and CSO efforts. Trust between the two needs to be built and CSOs have to work on their professional capacity and undertake self-regulation to be seen as dependable actors, Lauron said.

Global networking is crucial, especially people-to-people exchanges. “Every Philippine activist is also an internationalist because we see that the problems facing the Pilipino society are not limited to our domestic context but must be situated” in the world economic and political context, Lauron said. “Political education among activists and civil society is therefore important as we have to know the forces we’re confronting with in order to develop new strategies and for the approaches to be effective.”

Lauron was responding to concerns raised by Chien about civil movements being restricted to the local and domestic level without global connections.

To share the “Taiwan model” or other experiences of civil society across countries, “we must move beyond organizations and formal institutions [that tend to be] distrusted by citizens and society,” Rutzen said, adding that one effective approach lies with youth engagement.

Lauron echoed this sentiment.

“A new generation of civil society leaders and movement leaders need to be developed; seeds can multiply,” she said.

 

All photos courtesy of Taiwan Aid.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 7: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

TDB Vol. 1 No. 7: Sexual and Gender-Based Violence

While Taiwan has made progress in raising the social status of survivors of sexual assault, most victims in Asia are still deprived of a voice. Specialists and victims of sexual and gender-based assault from around the world took part in a workshop organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy last week. Stacy Hsu reports.

 

Standing in front of a packed room full of participants at a workshop on ending sexual and gender-based violence in Asia on May 24 — part of the three-day East Asia Democracy Forum organized by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy — 18-year-old Taiwanese Victoria Hwang (黃靖茹) electrified her audience with her vivid account of the sexual assaults she suffered at far too young an age.

Hwang was 10 when a close relative raped her at her home. Due to the belief that “the ugly should be kept within the family” and the unfortunate Asian culture that regards sex as a taboo subject at home, Hwang’s parents neither called the perpetrator out nor provided their daughter the emotional comfort she desperately needed.

Instead, they tried to pacify her by saying that the family relative only touched her because “he liked her.” Until this day, Hwang is forced to face her rapist at family reunions every year. The worst part? She has to pretend nothing happened in order to maintain household harmony.

At age 15, Hwang was sexually assaulted by a male friend, to whom she admitted she was attracted. The man also justified his action by saying he had feelings for her. The excruciating realization that she could not turn to her parents for help, or talk to someone about what had happened to her, led to her being diagnosed a year later with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Read Your Pain founder Victoria Hwang.

Hwang’s trauma was not only caused by the two people who sexually violated her, but also a patriarchal society’s tendency to silence rape survivors. “If this society does not allow rape victims to tell their truths, they will never acquire the strength and support they need,” Hwang said.

Fortunately for Hwang, she stepped out of the shadows after realizing later that she had to overcome her fears and get her story out there for society to listen and change its traditional mindset. She also initiated a scheme called “Read Your Pain,” which publishes the stories of victims of sexual violence anonymously to help facilitate their healing process and raise awareness of the issue.

The 18-year-old’s successful transition from “a rape survivor to an activist” may seem encouraging, but many more victims of sexual assault remain encumbered by past trauma in the darkest corners of the world.

As Garden of Hope Foundation chief executive officer Chi Hui-jung (紀惠容) said in her opening remarks at the workshop, while Taiwan has made progress in raising the social status of survivors of sexual assault, most victims in Asia are still deprived of a voice.

“How to empower these victims to help them through trauma, and make society realize they are not responsible for what happened to them, are the goals most countries are working towards,” Chi said.

Chi’s views were echoed by Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Vice President Ketty W. Chen (陳婉宜), who believes the entrenched practices of “blaming the victims and assuming they must have done something wrong” are the greatest impediments to an appropriate societal attitude toward sexual violence and their survivors.

Though Taiwan currently has a relatively comprehensive sexual-assault safety net — including prevention campaigns by authorities and women’s rights groups, as well as an administrative mechanism of mandatory reporting of suspicious rape cases — there is still much room for improvement.

The time-consuming legal process for solving sexual abuse cases, coupled with a lack of gender awareness among some judges and prosecutors, can add to the already heavy psychological burden of victims, Chi said.

Chi gave the example of a recent case where a migrant worker was sexually assaulted three times by her employer. “The authorities, convinced of the existence of an emotional bond between the assaulter and the victim, concluded that the sexual acts were consensual and decided not to prosecute the case,” she said.

Education is another aspect that requires more emphasis, said Wang Yue-hao (王玥好), deputy chief executive officer of the Garden of Hope Foundation, singling out the common misconception that most sexual offenses are committed by strangers, while in fact in most cases the perpetrators are acquaintances.

Lee Ping-chang (李炳樟), a specialist at the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Department of Mental and Oral Health, also warned against the association of rapists with mental illness, saying that less than 10 percent of sex offenders are actually found to have psychological problems.

“That is why we should focus more on monitoring them [sexual assaulters], rather than treating them,” Lee said.

Such a mistaken belief also prevails when people think about violence against women, said Malaysian gender consultant Ivy Josiah, who formerly served as executive director of the Selangor-based Women’s Aid Organization.

“Violence against women is not a mental health issue, but one rooted in gender inequality, power imbalance and discrimination,” said Josiah, adding that alcohol, work-related pressure, or financial difficulties are merely enabling factors of such violence, as opposed to the primary causes.

Malaysian gender consultant Ivy Josiah.

Whether it is sexual or gender-based violence, there was a resounding consensus among the workshop participants that more action by both government and communities is needed to resolve the problem.

All Japan Women’s Shelters Network Assistant Coordinator Yuki Kusano stressed the importance of government funding for shelters for victims of physical violence. According to statistics provided by Kusano, physical violence at the hands of a husband in Japan is the cause of death of a wife every three days.

Kusano said her organization took the initiative in establishing the first shelter for victims with a minority sexual orientation or gender identity (SOGI) in Japan in August 2014, but the project only lasted eight months and fell apart shortly after they ran out of government subsidies.

All Japan Women’s Shelters Network Assistant Coordinator Yuki Kusano.

Although almost every country today provides shelters and emergency hotlines for violence survivors, Josiah said community involvement is still vital to helping battered women and their children.

“While it is easy to find help in a small nation like Taiwan, in big countries like India, you cannot find services everywhere,” Josiah said. “So there is a lot of work to get the community to stand up to provide service to each other.”

As to what can be done next to further combat violence against women, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs gender specialist Crystal Rosario offered an interesting suggestion: Incorporating gender-sensitive elements into soap operas.

Rosario’s idea resonated among many participants, including Josiah, who urged TV producers to come up with popular drama shows that challenge gender stereotypes rather than reinforcing them, as most Korean soap operas tend to do.

Other suggestions included providing interactive and educational touring plays to local community centers, launching campaigns that better engage men on gender equality, and offering re-education for members of society.

Re-education is particularly important at a time when people have started to see sexual assault and domestic violence as social norms, Josiah said, adding she regretted that only sensational news stories, such as one about a woman being raped by 20 men, receive public attention nowadays.

“We should really try to change and challenge this mindset,” she said.

Taiwan Foundation for Democracy vice president Ketty W. Chen.

Women’s group Gabriela secretary-general Joms Salvador.

 

All photos by the Garden of Hope Foundation.

TDB Vol. 1 No. 4: Trends in physical violence and assaults on the press

TDB Vol. 1 No. 4: Trends in physical violence and assaults on the press

Physical violence and denial of access to members of the press are two tactics that have been used with alarming frequency in recent months by civic groups bent on blocking legislation proposed by the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. J. Michael Cole reports.

 

Same-sex marriage and pension reform are two pieces of legislation that have resulted in escalatory action since late 2016 by civic organizations that are primarily associated with the pan-blue camp. In the former case, conservative Christian organizations have spearheaded efforts to block a marriage equality bill; in the latter, retired personnel, as well as deep-blue organizations such as the Blue Sky Alliance, have led the movement. While marginal, the Alliance has a track record of disruptive behavior and physical violence against officials.

As a result of the spiralling unrest, rather than be debated rationally the complex issues have become politicized, giving rise to a spectacle of emotions, crass party politics, divisiveness and disruptiveness. While passing off as normal civil society and purportedly emulating the student-led Sunflower Movement of 2014, the opposition groups are discrediting Taiwan’s democracy and undermine government institutions in the pursuit of goals that do not enjoy majority support across society and which tend to be diametrically opposed to the aspirations of younger generations.

More than 80% of young people in Taiwan support same-sex marriage; a majority of young people, meanwhile, support measures that will ensure the viability and sustainability of the pension system, which under current rules and after decades of abuse threaten to break the state coffers in the not-too-distant future.

Furthermore, the two groups mentioned above have taken actions that would have been inconceivable to the young members of the Sunflower Movement and groups associated with it, primarily violence against individuals and the systematic targeting of members of the press. Alarmingly, both trends have accelerated in recent months.

On several occasions since late last year, members of the LGBTQ community have been physically assaulted by groups opposed to same-sex marriage; in a few cases the assaults resulted in minor injuries. The use of violence against elected officials from the Tsai administration, as well as DPP legislators, has also become more frequent, with several incidents occurring outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei this morning (April 19). Despite a police presence at the scene — clearly insufficient and often disorganized — a number of officials were grabbed at, pushed, or body-slammed; Deputy Taipei Mayor Charles Lin was pushed against a police fence, injuring his hand; another (Tainan City Councilor Wang Ding-yu) was repeatedly pushed and had a water bottle thrown at his face. New Power Party (NPP) Legislator Hsu Yung-ming was also pushed and splashed with water.

On an evening talk show on SET-TV, a convener of the Changhua Military Civil Servants and Teachers Association argued that “DPP rhetoric” had made them “very emotional” and that they could not be held responsible if they “killed someone.” Worryingly, this was not the first time that a member of groups opposed to pension reform referred to “killing.” In an earlier protest, someone argued (arguably in the heat of the moment) that President Tsai herself should be killed.

According to Wang, the protest groups may have been infiltrated by Chinese trouble makers. There is also a possibility that members of crime syndicates, many of them pro-China, are also playing a role in the protests, not so much out of interest in the policies but simply to undermine democracy and destabilize the Tsai administration. With more radical elements highjacking the movement, the grievances of the more moderate members of society who stand to be affected by pension reforms, and who understandably will seek to lose as little as possible in the bargain, risk being lost in the noise.

During the April 19 protest, which also spilled to the DPP headquarters, several members of the press reported being denied access to the venue. Protesters routinely asked journalists to see their press pass; media that were deemed to be too closely associated with the green camp (DPP and NPP) were surrounded by protesters and ordered to leave the scene; pan-blue and pro-China media, meanwhile, were left alone. The windshield of a SET-TV news vehicle was also smashed with a hammer. (During the Sunflower occupation, a journalist from the pro-KMT China Times Group was heckled by protesters but was never prevented from doing her work; criticism of the incident ensured this did not happen again.)

Photo: Yahoo News

Similar disruptive actions against members of the press (also mainly pro-green camp media) have occurred during protests organized by opponents of same-sex marriage legislation since 2016.

Both controversies have undermined democratic mechanisms and tarnished Taiwan’s image, which for some protesters appears to be the intended outcome. Shortcomings in personal protection for elected officials by law enforcement agencies, as well as failure to arrest and prosecute protesters for physical assault, have also contributed to repetition and escalation. Police’s unwillingness to ensure that members of the press have full access to protest sites and can carry out their work without interference has also created a hostile environment for journalists.

(Top photo: Match.net.tw)

TDB Vol. 1 No. 3: TFD hosts 2017 Community of Democracies Youth Forum

TDB Vol. 1 No. 3: TFD hosts 2017 Community of Democracies Youth Forum

The Taiwan Foundation for Democracy (TFD) and the Permanent Secretariat of the Community of Democracies (PSCD) today opened the 2017 CoD Youth Forum at TFD headquarters in Taipei, bringing together young human rights activists and academics from around the world to discuss the many challenges facing democracy.

 

Titled “Strengthening Youth Participation in Democracies Worldwide,” the three-day workshop is one of the first CoD events to focus specifically on youth and their role in democracy.

Nearly 40 speakers and participants, from countries as varied as Burma, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Pakistan, Thailand, Taiwan, Mongolia, Mexico, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Gambia, Morocco, Pakistan, the U.K. and the U.S., are taking part in this year’s workshop. Among the participants from Taiwan are Lin Fei-fan, Wei Yang, Poyu Tseng and Jennifer Lu.

Among the topics discussed at the panels are “Security and Democracy: Extremism, Cultural Bigotry and the threats to Democracy,” “Unbalanced Globalization: Impact on Democracy,” “Effective Youth Participation – The balance between social movements and political participation,” “Global Youth Solidarity for Democracy,” and “Establishment of a Youth Pillar.”

According to the workshop manual, only 1.65% of parliamentarians around the world are under the age of 30 and less than 12% are under the age of 40, while the global average age of parliamentarians is 53.

“Despite the age eligibility for national parliaments starting at 25 in more than a third of countries around the world,” it says, “citizens under the age of 35 are rarely found in political leadership positions — political institutions, parties, parliaments, election bodies and public administration.”

As a result, it continues, “It should come as no surprise that, with limited opportunities for inclusive participation in decision-making processes, youth feel excluded and marginalized in their democracies.”

Since meaningful democracies require the participation of youth, the 2017 CoD Youth Forum “aims to develop proposals to the question how can youths be more engaged and included in democracies.”

TFD President Hsu Szu-chien, right, delivers opening remarks at the CoD Youth Forum held at TFD headquarters in Taipei (photo: J. Michael Cole)

In his opening remarks on April 19, TFD President Dr. Hsu Szu-chien expressed his hopes that the Youth Forum, held as Taiwan celebrates the 30th anniversary of its democratization, would set a precedent for future youth empowerment, an area of democracy promotion that has not received as much attention as others over the years.

More than ever, with the rise of populism, the lure of extremist movements, trends suggesting an erosion of democratic traditions worldwide and authoritarian regimes like those in China proposing would-be alternatives to a liberal-democratic world order, young people need to be empowered and to be better informed about the ramifications of non-democratic systems of governance, Hsu said.

While dialogue can provide the platform for countries to help each other to democratize, he said, it is also essential to help counter democratic reversals such as have occurred in recent years.

“TFD wants to be part of that effort,” he said. “It’s a fight.”

Dr. Matyas Eörsi, Senior Adviser to the Secretary General and Head of Administration, Finance and Human Resources at PSCD, discusses democracy during his keynote speech at the CoD Youth Forum in Taipei (photo: J. Michael Cole)

In his keynote speech, Dr. Matyas Eörsi, Senior Adviser to the Secretary General and Head of Administration, Finance and Human Resources at PSCD, struck a more positive note.

Despite the many challenges and reversals observed worldwide — exemplified, among other things, by U.S. President Trump’s congratulatory remarks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the passing of a referendum on Sunday that will fundamentally alter the Turkish constitution in ways that have human rights watchers deeply worried — we should remember that during the Cold War almost everybody growing up in the shadow of Soviet authoritarianism believed that the Soviet Union was eternal.

Decades later, and with the Soviet empire relegated to the history books, the Arab Spring proved once again that authoritarian regimes with the most powerful intelligence services and the savviest diplomats — countries like Mubarak’s Egypt — could be brought down by the people.

Turning to democracy, Eörsi said the term didn’t mean much unless it provided a platform for dialogue and the means to resolve the dilemma between human rights and the choices of the majority. That dialogue, he added, necessitates a parliament, a free press that can scrutinize the mechanisms of power, and a civil society. Without those, democracy as self-reflection cannot occur. And without self-reflection, there can be no room to change, or to improve, the system.

Eörsi described the Community of Democracies as a “democratic United Nations.”

“There is much talk about democracy at the UN, but little tangible is done,” he said. “Part of the reason is because nearly half of UN member states are not democratic.”

Headquartered in Warsaw, Poland, the Community of Democracy was founded in 2000 under the Warsaw Declaration, a ground-breaking document signed by 106 countries in support of democratic transition and consolidation worldwide. TFD is an International Steering Committee member of the Civil Society Pillar of the Community of Democracies.

The CoD 2017 Youth Forum runs from April 19-22.

Dr. Ketty W. Chen, Vice President of TFD, left, discusses issues with former Sunflower Movement leader Lin Fei-fan (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Abdellah Eid, 23-year-old from Rabat, Morocco (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Thevuni Kotigala of Sri Lanka, left, and Jatzel Roman Gonalez of the Dominican Republic (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Andrzej Kostek
Head of Logistics, Events and Procurement, Permanent Secretariat, Community of Democracies, right, gives an overview of the Community of Democracy’s operations (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

TFD President Hsu, left, with Dr. Michael Y. M. Kau, Senior Research Fellow at TFD (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

TDB Vol. 1 No. 2: Lee Ming-che disappearance in China causes fears among Taiwan NGOs

TDB Vol. 1 No. 2: Lee Ming-che disappearance in China causes fears among Taiwan NGOs

Whether they are the result of new regulations in China governing foreign NGOs, the application of vague national security measures, or factional politics in the lead-up to an important CCP congress later this year, two incidents in late March suggest that it may be getting increasingly dangerous for NGO workers and activists to visit China. J. Michael Cole investigates.

 

The disappearance and detention of Lee Ming-che, a Taiwanese rights activist and staff member at Wenshan Community College in Taipei, by Chinese authorities last month could have a chilling effect on the willingness of Taiwan-based human rights workers and NGOs to put their personal safety at risk by operating in China.

Lee, who formerly worked for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), was seized upon entering Zhuhai, in Guangdong Province, via Macau, on March 19. Lee reportedly travelled to China four or five times a year and often discussed human rights and democracy on social media with contacts in China. According to initial reports, on this particular trip he was heading for Guangzhou to secure medical treatment for this mother in law. It wasn’t until 10 days later that the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office confirmed that Lee had been detained for  “activities that endangered national security.” The TAO, however, did not give specifics as to the nature of Lee’s “illegal” activities, nor did it provide clarification on where he was being detained. So far it also has not permitted “humanitarian visits,” as stipulated in Article 12 of the Cross-strait Joint Crime Fighting and Judicial Mutual Assistance Agreement.

Lee’s predicament could be the first clear instance of China’s latest regulations on foreign-funded NGOs (which include those based in Taiwan) and new National Security Act, implemented in 2015, targeting a Taiwanese national. The vague definitions of threats to national security stipulated in the Act, along with Beijing’s position that the provisions also apply to Taiwan, ostensibly account for Lee’s detention. Whether the Act or the new regulations on foreign-funded NGOs was used to detain him remains to be determined, as does the nature of his purported infraction(s), which could range from the promotion of democracy through contacts in China to Taiwan “separatism.”

His detention also coincides with a chilling of relations between Taipei and Beijing following the election of Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP in January 2016. However, Beijing’s refusal to allow Feng Chongyi, a China-born associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney and Australian permanent resident, for almost a week in late March suggests that the enforcement of new National Security Act and/or foreign NGO regulations — not tensions in cross-Strait relations — may have been the principal cause of the decision by China’s security apparatus to detain Lee.

Lee’s detention may also have been in retaliation for Taiwan’s arrest in early March of Zhou Hongxu, a Chinese university student in Taipei, for espionage. Another possibility, advanced by individuals who are in regular contact with civil society in China, is that factionalism within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may have led security forces to capture Lee (and, possibly, to detain Feng, who was also submitted to long interrogations at his hotel in Guangzhou) in order to “embarrass” President Xi Jinping ahead of the important CCP congress later this year. The timing of Feng’s brief detention, coming during a state visit to Australia by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, reinforces the view that internal politics — the jockeying between the Xi and Jiang Zemin factions — may have been a factor. Lastly, it has also been suggested that Lee’s detention may be part of efforts by a segment of the Chinese security apparatus, dissatisfied with Xi’s failure to take a harder line on Taiwan, to cause a controversy in cross-Strait relations. By presenting him with a fait accompli (Lee’s arrest for “endangering” national security), President Xi’s enemies have made it difficult for the Chinese leader to order Lee’s release lest he be accused of being soft on national security.

After sustained global media coverage and an open letter signed by several dozen academics, Feng was eventually allowed to depart for Australia on April 1; as a condition for his release, he was made to sign a statement agreeing that he would not give details of his questioning or where it took place.

Unlike Feng, Lee’s case has received much less international attention, notwithstanding press conferences at the weekend by various NGOs, including one by former Sunflower Movement leaders Lin Fei-fan, Chen Wei-ting and Huang Kuo-chang, in which Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong also participated. The lack of international pressure could conceivably make Lee’s release less likely.

Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu, announced at a press conference late last week that she will go to China to secure her husband’s release but will not retain legal counsel there as doing so would give the appearance of “legitimizing” the regime and China’s unfair legal system. Various Taiwanese agencies said they were working behind the scenes to find out more about Lee’s whereabouts, the reasons for his detention, and to secure his release.

Lee’s case will undoubtedly exacerbate fears among Taiwan’s NGO community that their activities in China may also subject them to arbitrary arrest and detention. Despite China’s assurances that Taiwanese are protected by the law, the incident will likely have a chilling effect on interactions between Taiwanese and Chinese civil societies. The possible cooperation of Macau and Hong Kong authorities in the rendition of suspects to China proper also indicates that the special administrative enclaves may no longer be safe for individuals who are deemed “dangerous” by the Chinese government.

Photo: whereislee.org

TDB Vol. 1 No. 1: Violence and Civil Society

TDB Vol. 1 No. 1: Violence and Civil Society

In this opening issue, J. Michael Cole looks at recent instances of physical violence during protests in Taiwan and argues that if they are part of a trend, such incidents risk undermining the legitimacy of civic activism and are ultimately detrimental to Taiwan’s democracy.

 

Taiwan has a long tradition of activism, one that continued — and in some ways intensified — after the end of the authoritarian era. Despite the high frequency of street protests in this vibrant democracy, civic agitation has rarely been violent, and with a few notable exceptions, when physical violence did occur tit was perpetrated by law enforcement agencies. Examples of this were seen during the first visit to Taiwan by Chen Yunlin, then the head of China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS), in November 2008, and at the Executive Yuan on the night of March 23-24, 2014, during the Sunflower Movement. Otherwise, and in contrast with the use of force by police and security agencies in other democracies, the response by Taiwan’s law enforcement agencies to street protests in recent years has been largely permissive and rarely constituted abuse or violence, as some contemporaneous critics alleged.

The same can be said of activist civil society, which rarely went beyond the ritualistic “clashes” with police — pushing and shoving during which no one’s safety was put at risk and in which both sides suffered minor bruises at worst. With some notable exceptions and notwithstanding claims by the authorities, protesters defied the government peacefully albeit vocally, and often refused to abide by the Assembly and Parade Act, which restricted the public’s ability to protest spontaneously. In recent years, when non-state actors used violence during protests it tended to result from the involvement of criminal organizations, most of them linked to the pro-unification movement. Such incidents surrounded visits by senior Chinese officials during the phase of rapprochement under the Ma Ying-jeou administration (2008-2016), with groups of unidentified individuals ensuring “protection” for the Chinese delegations assaulting young and unarmed Taiwanese protesters from civic organizations opposing the visits. Pro-Beijing groups, such as the Concentric Patriot Association of the ROC (CPAROC, 中華愛

國同心會), have also become notorious for attacking Falun Gong practitioners in the plaza outside the Taipei 101 skyscraper.

Despite the incidents described above, even when street activism in contemporary Taiwan was at its apogee (2011-2015) protesting — and law enforcement’s response to protesting — was a largely peaceful activity and rarely descended into the kind of violence that typifies street protests in other Asian democracies.

Worrying Trends

There are, however, signs that violence may be becoming more intrinsic to protesting and at the instigation of elements purporting to be part of civil society. Thus, while society remains largely committed to peaceful and legal forms of activism, there is reason to believe that some sectors have been infiltrated by organizations that are prepared to use violence to achieve their political aims and/or to discredit Taiwan’s democratic institutions. Many, moreover, are using the “Sunflower precedent” as justification for holding rowdy protests, and have replicated the language used by civil society during the Ma Ying-jeou years to target the Tsai administration.

One segment of society that continues to use physical violence or the threat thereof involves the pro-unification groups that are opposed to the Tsai administration and to any iteration of self-determination, whether in Taiwan or Hong Kong. Those groups, which bring together organizations like the CPAROC, the China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP, 中華統一促進黨) and various members of Taiwan’s Triads — primarily the Bamboo Union and the Four Seas Gang — are believed to be operating with some guidance from the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO, 國務院台灣事務辦公室標識) as well as United Front Work units of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the China Council for the Promotion of Peaceful National Reunification (CCPPR, 中國和平統一促進會), though in many instances decisions are likely made independently. Those organizations were involved in violent clashes at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport in early January upon the arrival of four pro-localization and democracy activists from Hong Kong and took their protest outside the venue of a forum in Taipei, where they were met with a large police force. Chang Wei, the son of CUPP party founder Chang An-le (aka “White Wolf”) was arrested after the attacks at Taoyuan airport.

As Beijing’s efforts to compel the Tsai administration to acknowledge the “1992 consensus” and “one China,” such groups, though marginal politically, are nevertheless expected to ramp up their activities and to target the more visible symbols of resistance to “one China” in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as to use bribery and intimidation in future elections. Members of criminal organizations, working in conjunction with the aforementioned groups, will also conceivably be activated as a means to isolate Taiwanese and Hong Kong so as to prevent future contact between their civil societies.

There are also signs suggesting that pro-Beijing elements have infiltrated or cooperated with other civic groups involved in non-unification/independence matters, a development that could result in more violence at protests with the aim of causing social disturbance, undermining support for state authorities and discrediting democracy as a conflict-resolution mechanism. In light of the CCP’s intensifying propaganda campaign against Western liberalism and its claim that Marxism-Leninism offers a better alternative to democracy, Taiwan could be used as a battleground for that war of ideologies.

Signs of escalation and possible radicalization have also appeared in the protests surrounding the Tsai administration’s proposed reforms to the pension system. Though not uncontroversial, as this would affect civil servant’s ability to retain their preferential 18% saving rate — seen as unfair and unsustainable by a large segment of society — the reform has sparked protests across the nation in recent weeks. In some cases, protesters (or people passing off as protesters) physically assaulted individuals — including a young member of the New Power Party — who were heading for a public hearing on the reform. Such behavior would have been unthinkable in recent years, especially when civil society was fighting for the right of individuals to attend public hearings.

Civil society, with subsequent assistance by pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong, also sought to discredit the administration by spreading disinformation claiming that the Presidential Office had given the green light to Military Police to open fire on protesters.

Violence has also occurred within the movement that opposes the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan. Starting in 2013, groups opposed to legalization, many of them with ties to conservative Christian churches and Right Wing elements based in the United States, began harassing members of the LGBTQI community in public spaces, often denying them freedom of movement and invading their personal space; in some cases, the acts came very close to constituting imprisonment. More recently, opponents of legalization have physically assaulted, kicked from behind, slapped, spat upon and nearly strangled members of the LGBTQI community during public protests. More worryingly still is the fact that many of these incidents occurred in the presence of police officers, who failed to intervene and did not arrest the perpetrators. The instances of violence, or threat thereof, against members of the LGBTQI community have compelled proponents of same-sex marriage to deploy their own “security” at public events.

Street protests and activism are an essential component of a healthy democracy and a means to keep governments accountable to the public between elections. However, while such activism has been a key element of the consolidation of Taiwan’s democracy, recent developments suggest that the spirit of activism may in some instances have been hijacked by groups and individuals — not to mention the CCP — in order not to further Taiwan’s democracy but rather to undermine and discredit it in the eyes of the Taiwanese and their friends abroad. Greater effort will therefore be needed to distinguish between legitimate protests and those that may instead be used as instruments to achieve more nefarious objectives.

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