TDB Vol. 1 No. 14: Illiberal Forces Push Back in Taiwan

TDB Vol. 1 No. 14: Illiberal Forces Push Back in Taiwan

Movements that are driven by a conservative ideology are joining hands to block various progressive efforts by the government in Taiwan. Using threats, violence, disinformation and even democratic instruments, these groups seek to intimidate civilians and elected officials in the pursuit of their objectives. J. Michael Cole looks into the latest developments.

 

Violence-prone groups that advocate unification with China, a movement that opposes the Tsai Ing-wen government’s pension reform program and religious organizations that are dead set against the legalization of same-sex marriage (and homosexuality in general) have come together and formed a loose coalition in recent months, using tactics that go against the progressive momentum that has animated Taiwanese society in recent years.

Though more alliance of convenience than an actual structured organization, the three movements have joined ranks to push back against what many regard as progress, and have had no compunction in resorting to threats and violence to punish, intimidate and silence their ideological opponents. Left unchecked, these activities will contribute to greater social instability and undermine the nation’s democratic institutions.

Violence and threats

A handful of groups have resorted to physical violence, and the threat thereof, in recent months. Led by Chang An-le’s (aka “White Wolf”) China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) and its ideological ally, the Concentric Patriot Association (CPA), these groups have repeatedly attacked protesters and students at various venues, most recently during the aborted “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival.” The CUPP and CPA are believed to be working alongside Chinese triads, chief among them the Bamboo Union and the Four Seas Gang.

Besides their involvement in violent altercations during the Sunflower Movement in 2014, the groups have been linked to assaults targeting members of the Falun Gong and young pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong (interestingly, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte alleged recently that the Bamboo Union  is behind the proliferation of the drug trade in his country). Moreover, the CUPP has been present at protests against pension reform and has collaborated with the Blue Sky Alliance, a violence-prone organization that is suspected of involvement in physical assaults against elected officials outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei earlier this year. Anti-pension reform groups were also behind the disruptions during the opening ceremonies of the 2017 Summer Universiade in Taipei last month. The Blue Sky Alliance also added its own threats against students after the concert incident.

Following the controversy surrounding the “Sing! China: Shanghai-Taipei Music Festival,” which has been regarded as a United Front effort by the Chinese, numerous Taiwanese activists have reported receiving threatening messages on social media. In at least one instance, a message made a direct reference to a knife attack. The spouse of Yao Li-ming, a vocal talk show personality, has also received threats, cautioning her to be “careful” next time she visits the market. Given precedent in China and Hong Kong, such threats should not be taken lightly and require proper investigation by the authorities, which in the past week have launched a series of raids against locations associated with the Bamboo Union (although he denies it, Chang, who served a decade in U.S. prison for drug trafficking, is widely suspected of being associated with the group).

Chang An-le, aka “White Wolf,” speaks to reporters during a protest outside DPP headquarters in Taipei (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

Young activists, including former Sunflower Movement leader Chen Wei-ting (now a legislative aide), have also been threatened with lawsuits for exposing links between concert organizers and UFW groups back in China. “Lawfare,” as the tactic is sometimes referred to, has been used with greater frequency by Chinese companies and organizations in recent months to silence and intimidate investigative journalists and academics.

The atmosphere of fear that is generated by the use and threat of violence is anathema to the inherent liberties in a democratic system, where different opinions should be aired without fear of reprisal. Involvement by crime syndicates, which have access to weapons, adds a layer of apprehension among people who advocate for their country and a progressive, liberal-democratic way of life.

Although the tolerance of pro-unification parties like the CUPP is a clear manifestation of Taiwan’s political maturity and democratic openness, such permissiveness ought to have its limits. If a registered political party ceases to act like one; if it intermingles with organized crime; if it infiltrates and co-opts grassroots organizations (trade groups, temples); if its head is, as he claims, collaborating with the State Council’s Taiwan Affairs Office (or one of its subsidiaries tasked with “turning” criminals and using them to further unificationist objectives); and if, as is suspected, it receives illegal funding (possibly from a foreign and hostile government), then its rights as a party should be annulled and the CUPP should be written off as an entity that operates outside the system. In other words, unless its leaders agree to abide by the democratic rules of the game that define Taiwanese politics, the CUPP should be barred from participating in elections or engaging in other forms of activities that are the remit of law-abiding political parties.

Using democracy against itself

Meanwhile, the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, an alliance created to oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage in Taiwan, is reportedly within a hair’s breadth of collecting enough signatures — 25,119 — to launch a recall vote against Huang Kuo-chang, the executive chairman of the New Power Party (NPP). Huang, whose NPP emerged from the Sunflower Movement and is well regarded by young progressive Taiwanese, has openly supported same-sex marriage and pension reform. A count on Oct. 6 will determine whether all the signatures gathered are valid. Should the attempt succeed, Huang could be removed despite not having committed a crime or been involved in irregularities; his removal would be the result of conservative/religious groups who cannot countenance a society that operates outside the confines of a literal and often self-serving interpretation of a religious text that guides no more than 5% of the total population of Taiwan.

The Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, which has initiated the attempted recall campaign against Huang, is a close ally of the Faith and Hope League party, which itself serves as an umbrella for various highly conservative Evangelical churches across Taiwan that have actively opposed same-sex marriage and which are generally anti-gay and against sex ed in school. The groups are also known to have been collaborating with MassResistance, a U.S.-based organization that promotes conservative values and that has been described as a “hate group.” Using disinformation and a fear campaign on social media to win over adherents to their cause, other religious groups (including Presbyterians) have threatened similar punitive action against politicians who support same-sex marriage, including the Democratic Progressive Party’s Wang Ting-yu in Tainan.

Opponents of same-sex marriage in Taiwan predict doom and gloom during a rally outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei on Nov. 17, 2016 (Photo: J. Michael Cole)

National Civil Servant Association president Harry Lee, who has spearheaded opposition to pension reform, has also thrown his support for the Greater Taipei Stability Power Alliance, thus merging opposition to same-sex marriage and pension reform, two issues that enjoy majority support with the Taiwanese public (more than 80% of young Taiwanese support the legalization of same-sex marriage). The CUPP’s Chang An-le is also known to have taken part in activities (including a panel) organized by anti-gay groups in Taiwan.

United in their opposition to progressive ideas, the alliance of convenience that has recently emerged in Taiwan threatens to serve as a force multiplier whereby the anti-liberal-democratic tactics used by one group exacerbate the efforts of other groups, however unrelated their causes. The involvement of pro-Chinese Communist Party, violence-prone and ostensibly triad-related groups in those movements adds a worrying variable to the mix and compounds the resulting instability.

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 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. 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. In the former case, conservative Christian organizations have spearheaded efforts to block a marriage equality bill; in the latter, retired personnel, as well as 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; 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 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)

No More Articles