Thursday, August 01, 2013

Services Pact, Protests, Democracy: Eternally Abraded by Gold

The cycle path through the wind machines along the coast in Miaoli. An enjoyable stretch, one I do regularly.

The protests in Taipei over the services pact finally made the international news. AFP reported on it in its usual slanted way, characterizing the protesters as "pro-independence activists" (of course some of them actually were).
Dozens of Taiwanese pro-independence activists clashed with police during a protest Tuesday against an agreement to further open up service sector trade with China as lawmakers debated the pact. mention of the students who have played a prominent role in the protests, as J Michael Cole has noted here and here.

AP's report has a more interesting slant....
The pact is the latest in a series of China trade agreements promoted by Ma. The Taiwanese leader believes that unless Taiwan tightens its economic links with the mainland, the island's standard of living will suffer, particularly as neighboring Asian countries pursue their own commercial preferential arrangements with Beijing.
What makes it interesting to me is how the writer characterizes Ma as believing the pact is necessary to save Taiwan's standard of living -- when said standard has been deteriorating for most Taiwanese for more than a decade now. Wages have regressed to late 1990s levels, for example. Indeed, this regression is occurring even as Taiwan moves closer to China and arguably, because of it. Wouldn't it have been great if AP had reported that? Hahaha. What earth am I living on? Meanwhile Ma is still promoting the move to China as necessary to "save" Taiwan, even at this late date....

I'm not even going to bother to discuss the pact; we all know what a pact supported by the Ma Administration, the KMT, big companies, and global financial capital means for Taiwan.

Rather, I'd like to talk about something J Michael Cole wrote about in his stream of posts on Dapu, Huaguang, and the services pact protests. Here's what he wrote: Young Taiwanese fear authoritarian revival. Oh, wait a second, that was from 2008, Chen Yun-lin visit. Remember that? And yet, "despite" the anger, ECFA sailed through the legislature and Chinese negotiators continue to visit, just like the current services pact is going to sale sail through the legislature.....

Yep, student protests have become, well, a regular feature of Taiwan's democracy. Probably the first major one was in March of 1990 (unless you want to count the Tiaoyutai Movement), one report here in the NYTimes.....
More than 6,000 students and thousands of onlookers gathered in a city park today to demand greater democracy, and there were reports that the President would convene a national conference to discuss the pace of political change on the island. can also date them back to the 1980s, when Lin Chia-long, the current likely DPP mayoral candidate for Taichung, was organizing free speech protests/clubs on university campuses (those clubs grew into the 1990 protests). What's happening in Taipei at the moment is hardly on the scale of the protests of even five years ago -- in Dec of 2008 several thousand students marched to the presidential palace, after 400 had begun a sit-in, in a huge ruckus over the parade and assembly law driven by the Wild Strawberry movement. Remember that?

Yeah, thought you did. Bet you can't tell me what happened to the parade and assembly laws as a result of the protest.

Alas, the protests do not signal the possibility of change. That was the case in the 1980s and 1990s, because there was so much potential for positive change and because protests could make that change by signaling public displeasure when other avenues are closed. In the authoritarian days protesters appeared to outsiders as fighters for freedom. Now they appear as partisans for particular self-interested causes, avatars of interest-group democracy -- which is how the media typically interprets democratic processes -- rather than heroes of democratic development.

Really, several of these latest protests are just the squirming of the bugs as they are being crushed.  Dapu was over when the project was planned; Huaguang was finished when some developer wanted that land....

These protests have now become normalized and part of the System. Think about it. Every time some group is displeased at some event or decision, they go up to Taipei and protest. After all, we have democracy, and protests are no longer exciting and risky challenges to a fading authoritarian regime, they are part of the normal democratic process and have become a kind of background noise of democracy, like the cosmic radiation left over from the Big Bang. Such protests change nothing, of course. Whatever decision has been made goes on, a few sops may be handed out to the offended group. Government officials will express sympathy and concern. And the official refrain, one always hears it whenever officials are challenged: "This was done in accordance with the law." And whatever action was being opposed, goes on. Democracy thus functions to legitimate KMT power, especially for outsiders. Because the KMT makes the law.

The real, fundamental problem is that the KMT/construction-industrial state alliance has rendered Taiwan democracy irrelevant. Taiwanese can do as they want, talk, protest, whatever, it affects the construction-industrial state not a whit. The KMT has been able to this because it controls the legislature where the laws are made, and as I pointed out several years ago, it will probably continue to control the legislature for years to come. The "reform" of the legislature, which shrank it and changed the districts to winner-take-all, will someday be seen as a turning point in the march of democracy in Taiwan, cooperating with that as possibly the DPP's greatest fuck-up of all time. These protests and others to come when a few thousand of the next generation of idealistic students takes to the streets will break like foam against this wall of lawmaking incompetence and corruption. Cole claims:
....In the past two months I have noticed a marked hardening in the words used in slogans and art against the government, including the now popular “fuck the government” stickers, the “Today Dapu, tomorrow the government” slogan and the “civil revolt” towels. More and more, I see references to “overthrow,” “bring down” and “cleanse” on various Internet platforms, language that I had rarely seen in my nearly eight years as a journalist in this country.
If I had a nickel for every time I've heard the equivalent of "fuck the government" from a Taiwanese in my twenty years here -- most of it not spent in the Taipei bubble -- I'd be a wealthy man indeed. No one is going to overthrow or "cleanse" the government, it will remain as always when the current round of protests peters out, controlled by KMT even if the DPP wins the Presidency, and more fundamentally, by the construction-industrial state. That vast capitalist machine spits out money all over Taiwan, linking powerful local clans in patronage networks to the central government, and dusting everyone's lives with a little cash. Everyone has a little stake in it. Student protests aren't going to affect that Machine. It will just ignore them.....

Indeed, it should be noted, the vast majority of students are not protesting, they are preparing for jobs in China or studying for the endless exams (whose political function is to curtail student political action by loading them down with work) or taking selfies or collecting LV bags or smartphones or breaking records on World of Warcraft. One thing the System beats into students here repeatedly is that You Can't Beat City Hall and If You Try We Will Fuck On You. Dropping out and ignoring the System is also a form of protest against it, the only form of protest available to so many here.

The most recent iteration of the student movement has attempted to bridge the Blue/Green divide by embracing social issues that cross it, like the Losheng Sanitarium or the parade and assembly laws or in this case, the construction-industrial state as manifested in the demolition of the houses at Dapu. They have also embraced the Hung case, the conscript allegedly tortured to death. This is a new tactic, but it is a classic case of a useful tactic making a poor strategy. Sooner or later it will run up against the problem that the construction-industrial state (like most other Taiwan problems) is predominantly a KMT project, however much it may have corrupted the DPP......and then it will be standing on one side of that divide. And then it will be discredited by the tribal identity politics here.

If I could make one change, a key bottleneck is the nation's legislative bodies, with the Legislative Yuan the worst. If we could get decent legislators, we might have a chance to make meaningful change. Taiwanese voters need to change how they vote for their legislators, yet, how to make them change? Complete this sentence: change will only begin when....
  • ....when the students take their protests outside of Taipei. Protesting at the LY is useless; it confines the movement to Taipei, neutralizing its possibilities. The movement is seen by outsiders as something that happens in Taipei. It needs to be national. Its Taipei leaders need to fan out and seed movements at other universities. 
  • ....when those celebrities megaphoning about Dapu start making PSAs aimed at getting the public to change the way it thinks about voting. 
  • ....when.... what's your answer? 
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Ben Goren said...

Ha!, nicely said and someone needs to say it. Wishing something to be so aint necessarily going to make it so. And that's an excellent point about democracy just serving to neutralise protests that are now just background noise to an unstoppable KMT run grey economy (the DPP's biggest mistake was being co-oped during reforms to accept a part and parcel transition that left the KMT with all the cards and the political infrastructure in place for unification). Also good to point out that voters have themselves to blame. Certainly the destruction of Taiwanese democracy comes directly from a culturally embedded flinch towards a central authoritarianism which everyone can blame so nobody has to take responsibility. Taiwanese are so busy looking after their pocketbooks and so imbibed with conservative risk-averse thinking that it can only possibly benefit the KMT and the construction-state. Being blissfully unaware of disregarding history also means not being able to see what's coming and that's where most don't get it and end up whinging when events, that are ostensibly predictable, come round to bite them in the arse. It's a double edged sword - the inconvenience of dealing with a dark history (best just sweep it under carpet in nice generalised platitudes that hold nobody to account) turns into the inconvenience of being robbed blind and left for dead by the very same people, albeit camouflaged by better PR. You can blame educational indoctrination so far, the rest is mostly down to always being way too late to realise the importance of the principle, long after it has been violated, exploited and bled dry. I have that sticker on my bike and the bike fixing shop peeps thought it funny and gave me the thumbs up but you can bet they'll do next to nothing all about it.

Anonymous said...

If you're going to say

The real, fundamental problem is that the KMT/construction-industrial state alliance has rendered Taiwan democracy irrelevant. Taiwanese can do as they want, talk, protest, whatever, it affects the construction-industrial state not a whit. The KMT has been able to this because it controls the legislature where the laws are made,

then you need to take it that one step further and state something like

The KMT controls the legislature because the people of Taiwan prefer to vote for KMT

Blaming the current situation and problems on that KMT-controlled legislature and the construction-industrial state is all well and good, but if the voters of Taiwan didn't repeatedly vote for that situation, then it wouldn't exist in that state. The buck stops with the voting public.

Mike Fagan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Mike Fagan said...

"In the authoritarian days protesters appeared to outsiders as fighters for freedom. Now they appear as partisans for particular self-interested causes, avatars of interest-group democracy..."

That's because they are partisans.

Any meaningful change will have to be sudden - anything that is gradual or time-consuming will be bad because it will give the vested interests time to react.

For this reason, and other reasons having to do with my voluntaryism, I submit that the nature and objectives of the protests must become switch to calls for across-the-board repeal of government powers without fear or favour. That is the only way for protests to truly stand against the system in a way that cannot be co-opted or ignored.

If protests were grounded in universal principles of freedom, then the

I can be ignored because I am only one man. Hundreds of thousands of people saying the same things I have been saying (e.g. repeal the Land Expropriation Act) cannot be ignored indefinitely.

Otherwise, I agree that the current protests in Taipei are, at best, useless.

Anonymous said...

I'd go further to say that protests anywhere are no longer effective - US, Canada, Japan, Turkey, China, France, you name it. The next step would be an 1848-style upheaval, but even that didn't change anything.

Mike Fagan said...

What happened to my comment? It's all spaced out in extra paragraphs, and mangled with missing bits of sentences...

Michael Turton said...

Sorry Mike, dunno what happened. I have no way to edit them.

Anon... it seems that you are right.


Anonymous said...

The real, fundamental problem is that the KMT/construction-industrial state alliance has rendered Taiwan democracy irrelevant. Taiwanese can do as they want, talk, protest, whatever, it affects the construction-industrial state not a whit.

You know I never liked protest, it is indeed a waste of time. Learn commercial law, it's the law that governs these "industry/ state alliances" it's all about the bottom line to them.

Marching in the streets is just like cosmic radiation left over in the sky, like the crickets we hear at night in nantou county, you get use to it and it might even become beautiful to listen to.

What they will understand is a well executed commercial lien for an ample sum lodged up their corporations.

March no more, don't rely on B.A.R. attorneys, the law is there learn it or continue to march. The choice is yours.