Some think this is just a purely economical issue. The Taiwanese students are not happy with the trade agreements agreed upon but not yet signed into law between the Mainland and Taiwanese side. This is understandable. College graduates in Taiwan has had a tough time getting (good) employment this past several years (decade?). Many – unfortunately – have come to feel protectionism – legal protection from globalism – is the best way to “compete” in the global economy.
However, this is oversimplification. If you listen to the speeches and talks within the protest, you have no doubt this is about partisan politics between KMT and DPP – and also emotional politics invoked against the Mainland. As I noted earlier in a comment in another thread, the main impetus of the protest is not about economics, but about the uneasy unsettled status of Mainland-Taiwan relations. The real reason is unification/independence politics.
But if this is all there is to the protest, I’d not write this post – as there is not much for me personally to write about. It’s just about normal democratic politicking – built upon base politics, misinformation, distortion, emotional rants, hateful or divisive rhetoric, and what I might call ethno/religious/identity politicking.
What I do want to address quickly here though is this notion propagated among students and media that somehow this is about preserving Taiwan’s democracy.
Foremost, isn’t it ironic that students would occupy a building of a democratically elected government – try to force it to stop function – in the name of democracy?
The R.O.C., like all other democracies around the world today, is a Democratic Republic. People elect representatives to represent them. People often focus on the “free” aspect of democracies. They forget that once this “freedom” is exercised, must also live by and respect the choices made. The people themselves do not preside over the government, the representatives do. If people don’t, then we have nothing but “mobocracy.” Or as Thomas Jefferson once warned, in its very essence, without proper Constitutional restraint, “a democracy is nothing more than mob rule….”
By design, elected representatives, as “trustees” of the people, have the free reign to enact policies that might be initially unpopular. This is why the call a mere call that the government has “stopped representing the people” rings hollow to me. Anyone can say something like that to anything they don’t like. The people do not have a “right” to override, micro-manage, or to exercise direct veto oversight over every law, regulation, policy the government takes on. In the annals of democracies, it is a perfectly legitimate thing for elected government leaders to do things that are not popular. In the U.S., for example, the very popular Medicare program today was unpopular when passed.
Besides, it is unclear that if the trade pact were that unpopular that were it to be approved it would be an act against the people. As it stands today, there are many people in Taiwan who actively support the agreement. A vocal minority might be vehemently against it, but the vast majority are ok with it.
In any case, trade agreements take time to implement. If things are so bad, the next election cycle is just around the cycle. Modifications can always be made to trade pact in the future. Students should think about which leaders they think might “represent the people” people and present them to the “people” – instead of interfering with government functions – pretending they are the “people.”
Yet surely, one might ask, the students have other recourse but to wait for the next election?
Sure, but one should do it within the limits set by law. What the students have done – effectively shutting down government buildings – was illegal. Resisting the riot police was not right. It was about political tussling /leveraging outside the framework of democracy – about obstructionist politicking – in a form that is a threat to the proper functioning of democracies.
Some might protest, but what the KMT is doing is undemocratic. The agreements were negotiated in the dark and we the people are not in a position to review what is agreed before they approve it.
A democratic republic, however, doesn’t provide for a people a first seat in all political negotiations – or a line-by-line review on everything the government does. Such are the purview of Direct Democracies, which are considered abysmal failures in general (see e.g. this general article, or this or this about California’s experience). And selective reviews for only specific laws (say, only this trade agreements) are but ploys for obstructive politicking.
Consider, for example, the cornerstone of Obama’s domestic policy – the so-called obamacare healthcare reforms. These are complex bills that are negotiated in private, behind closed doors between a few government officials and key industry leaders, and then signed into law. While a few opponents might complain about the process, the laws negotiated, despite the closed-door process by which the laws, are considered legitimate and democratic.
Or consider that vaunted TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) that is being negotiated among U.S., Canada, Japan among mostly supposed developed democracies? They are all taking behind closed doors (see, e.g., also this Canadian perspective). And let’s not forget, even when laws are made under public scrutiny, their implementations – which can be just as important, if not more so – often take place without public scrutiny, secretively behind closed-doors.
Backroom closed door dealings are not inconsistent with democratic principles. It actually happens quite often – and may actually be desirable, even indispensable. If one is against it, fine. But it’s wrong say that one is doing it in the name of “democracy.”
What about the question whether the CSSTA should be enacted through legislative approval or executive order? Under the current Constitution of the R.O.C., agreements such as the CSSTA can be enacted either way. This is not a loop hole. In democracies elsewhere, many policies can be enacted either legislatively or by executive order. In fact, in the U.S., controversial policies today are often enacted by executive order to bypass a divided or grid-locked legislative branch. Thus, President Obama has enacted many policies by Executive Order to bypass (what he considers to be) an obstructionist Congress. While this has caused some political uproars among Republicans, it has not caused people to pronounce the end of America’s Democracy.
Students have traditionally held a special place in Chinese politics, and Taiwan is no exception. But students per se don’t equate the “people” – not even in Taiwan. And when students are willing to be used but as pawns in partisan politics – as I believe they have in this case – they certainly should not be given any special position at all.
What Taiwan needs are a new generation who can boldly face the future. I cannot support students who think Taiwan businesses must be protected from Mainland businesses to be competitively. Because if they are right, Taiwan’s future must reside in protectionism. They must also need to be protected from other foreign businesses – including those from Japan, U.S., Europe, etc.
The notion that Mainland China can gain political control over Taiwan through economic agreements is silly. If Mainland can gain political control over Taiwan when Mainland companies start investing, doing business, hiring people, making products, selling products, providing and using services in Taiwan (a notion I can’t quite grasp), then so can Taiwan gain political control over the Mainland when Taiwanese companies invest and do business in the Mainland. Given that Taiwan’s economy currently is on a higher plane of development than the Mainland, and given that the trade agreements as currently negotiated disproportionately favors Taiwan businesses (to “buy off” Taiwan – if you listen to the protesters), any net political “control” will flow in Taiwan’s favor, so the theory should go.
In the protesters this time, I see little moral truth or vision. Instead, I see partisan politics. I see cross-strait politics. I see a lack of confidence of Taiwanese’s own ability, of the future, of the world. When I grew up in Taiwan, Taiwanese saw themselves as confident and hardworking and feisty. They built the Taiwan of today. We need a next generation of leaders who are confident and bold and that will take Taiwan forward to a world in which China has re-risen and is at peace, strong and prosperous.