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.