Archive for March, 2014

What about the mothers?

March 30, 2014

Yesterday the KMT organized a small anti anti CSSTA event.  The event featured worried mothers asking their children to go home.  The demonstrators also complained that the police were tired.

I rather doubt that many of the participants were actually mothers of protesting students.  Still, it’s amusing to think about the life lessons these “mothers” are teaching their “children.”  For example, “Don’t stand up for your beliefs.” “When something is tiring, you should give up.” “All major national decisions should be decided by what causes the least inconvenience to the police.”  How inspiring!

Today at the big demonstration, I saw a sticker that is probably a more accurate description of how students’ mothers actually feel.  It said, “政府動粗;媽媽生氣了!!Violent Gov’t Angers Mothers.”

state coercive power and non-violence

March 24, 2014

When the students forced their way into the Executive Yuan compound yesterday, they were forcing a confrontation.  All week long, Premier Jiang and President Ma had been encouraging Speaker Wang to use force to clear the legislature.  The students had to know that Ma and Jiang would not allow them to occupy the EY.  Further, the executive branch is a little different in nature than the legislative branch.  You can shut down the legislature for a few days without any dire consequences, but the executive branch has day-to-day operations.  My personal opinion is that the president and premier had good cause to order the police to remove the student protesters from the EY compound.  (When I think about it, I’m still shocked that force hasn’t been employed to clear the legislature.  It is extraordinary for any government to allow demonstrators to occupy critical government buildings.)

Forcing a confrontation is not necessarily a problem for practitioners of non-violent resistance.  (If I recall correctly, Gandhi did not like the term “passive resistance.”  There is nothing passive about it.)  One of the basic ideas of non-violent resistance is to force authorities to suppress you.  By accepting whatever violence they impose upon your person without retaliation, you demonstrate your commitment to a cause and establish your moral authority.  You are trying to cause observers, including the authorities who repress you, to reflect on why you believe so strongly in something and question whether or not they are justified in using physical force to compel you to follow their rules or orders.  You also send a message that you are resolutely committed to your position, so the authorities should not expect your resistance to fade away simply because they have repressed you one time.  Like a hunger strike, non-violent resistance relies on your willingness to endure physical suffering to communicate the seriousness of the injustice.

The most difficult thing about non-violent resistance is the non-violence part.  It is extremely hard not to defend yourself or fight back when you are being physically attacked.  I was very impressed with the way the demonstrators in the EY courtyard conducted themselves last night.  I saw very few instances of protesters retaliating.  They certainly resisted: by lying down, locking arms, and trying hard not to be pulled away, they were defying police orders and efforts.  However, almost none of the protesters lashed out physically at the police.  In fact, the students were so successful in resisting arrest that the police had to step up their level of physical coercion by bringing in water cannons.  They were not going to be able to clear the complex by dawn by simply pulling apart protesters one by one.  Again, this is how non-violent protest is supposed to work.  You are trying to force the authorities to suppress you as vividly and brutally as possible.  By accepting higher levels of suffering, you make a stronger statement.  The students last night made a very loud statement with their actions.

[Note: The most significant retaliation I saw was directed toward the water cannon trucks.  Demonstrators pelted them with small (relatively harmless) objects, such as plastic water bottles.  Two of the three trucks got flat tires.  No one has explained what happened, but it is reasonable to suspect that someone in the crowd punctured the tires.  I do not consider violence like this toward a physical object (the trucks) to be as significant as the restraint showed toward humans (the police).]

From the other side, the police were given orders to clear the compound using whatever non-lethal force they deemed necessary.  [I saw no hints of preparation to use lethal force, and I can’t imagine that President Ma or Premier Jiang even considered that option.]  Of course, the police are supposed to use the absolute minimum level of violence necessary.  However, this was a fundamentally physical confrontation, and their first order was to get the job done.  Some excessive use of force had to be expected as different people made different judgment calls on the ground.  The responsibility for any excessive violence belongs entirely to Ma and Jiang, not to the police.  When Ma and Jiang ordered the operation, they authorized the violence.

For the most part, I don’t think the violence got out of control.  The police had to use some force, and they did.  In fact, the students were resolute and solid enough that the police had to escalate their force.  I did not see what went on beyond the view of the TV cameras, and there are indications that the police were less restrained in their use of force in those areas.  However, I generally think the police used appropriate levels of coercive power to carry out their orders in clearing the compound.

In short, the students forced a confrontation by occupying the legislature.  Ma and Jiang made a justifiable choice to use force to clear them out.  Governments simply cannot let protesters take over critical public offices, especially ones that are responsible for the daily operations of the state.  The police were given orders, and they carried out their orders in a more or less professional manner.  The students made a strong statement of their moral authority, resoluteness, and commitment to their cause.  There were no riots, no deaths, and minimal property damage.  The students, the police, and Ma and Jiang all faced a challenge, and I think they all met that challenge reasonably well.

There is one exception.  There is a fundamental distinction between protests inside the EY and protests out on the street.  Ma and Jiang had a clear justification for removing protesters from the EY building and courtyard.  However, there is far, far less justification for removing protesters from the streets outside the EY.  People have a fundamental right to assembly; indeed the Council of Grand Justices just issued a constitutional interpretation declaring spontaneous street demonstrations to be legal.  After sunrise and after the EY had been cleared out, the police demanded that people clear the streets around the EY.  When the protesters did not comply, police used water cannons on them.  This was excessive force against legitimate protesters.  Ma and Jiang can credibly claim that the protests inside the EY were illegal; I do not believe that justification extends to protests outside the EY.  Using water cannons against street protesters was an excessive, irresponsible, and unnecessary use of coercive power against citizens.


From a strategic point of view, I think the students committed a serious blunder.  When they were still only in the legislature, they enjoyed high levels of public support and moral authority.  I think they have probably surrendered some of that.  They also had opportunities to engage in substantive debate on the CSSTA.  They might have tried to focus public attention on particular parts of the pact, perhaps by taking up one specific topic every day.  The focus has now shifted drastically away from any sort of substantive debate.  We are now simply talking about who is right and who is wrong.  This is probably working against the students since the radical students who stormed the EY allowed Ma and Jiang to redefine the students as violent and their actions as illegal.  The moderates still in the legislature have far less room to maneuver now, and I don’t know that they can accomplish anything more than they already have. It is probably time for them to consider their exit strategies.

From here, we are probably moving to a new phase in which the professional politicians take center stage.  Speaker Wang has started inter-party negotiations, and legislators will make the next few critical decisions, including how to define the CSSTA, how to review it, how many and what types of votes will be allowed, and so on.  We haven’t heard a lot from individual legislators, especially from the KMT, about their substantive views on the CSSTA.  It’s time to see if the KMT is really solidly behind this pact or not.

Events at the EY last night

March 24, 2014

Yesterday students occupied the Executive Yuan.  Last night, the police forcefully cleared them out.  Today we are all still trying to figure out exactly what happened and what we should think about it.


First, a summary of the events as I saw them.

I was at the protests until about 2:00am.  I walked around on the streets outside the EY compound, and I did not go inside.  From the outside, we could not see very clearly what was happening inside.  I went home and watched most of the police action on TV until about 6:00am.

I do not know how many protesters were inside the EY complex.  My best guess is 2000-5000, but that is a very shaky guess.

On TV, police mostly used reasonable amounts of force.  Remember, this was fundamentally a physical confrontation, so police had to use some force.  For the most part, the students sat on the ground with their arms locked, the police pried them away one by one, pulled them out of the complex, and released them into the street.  Every once in a while, the police used their sticks, but I did not see any of them take a swing at any protesters’ heads.  Mostly the sticks were used to pry the students apart.  Police also occasionally used their PVC riot shields to hit the protesters.  As the night went on, the police were not making fast enough progress in clearing the complex.  Their orders were to clear it by dawn, and they were not going to meet that deadline picking apart the protesters one by one.

Sometime around 3:30 or 4:00am, they began using three water cannon trucks.  The water pressure was well below lethal levels.  A media cameraman was knocked over, but remember that someone holding a heavy TV camera at their head level is not exactly stable.  Protesters with their feet firmly planted were usually able to stand against the water.  Most protesters were lying on the ground to begin with and able to withstand the water.  However, the water was very effective in weakening resistance.  Water saps your strength.  It’s a lot harder to resist when you are cold, wet, and miserable.  Some protesters, including former Premier Frank Hsieh, lost their glasses to blasts of water.  After the water cannon trucks were brought in, the riot police made much faster progress in clearing the courtyard.

TV cameras were not able to record all of the action.  The media was not allowed to record the progress inside the EY building.  There are indications that the police were less restrained in their use of force there.  Also, several protesters from the courtyard claimed that the police had hit them a few times after they were pulled away back through police lines where the cameras could not see them.  From what I could see on TV, it looked to me like the police used reasonably appropriate levels of force in clearing the EY compound.  However, what I couldn’t see was almost certainly more violent than what I could see.

After the EY compound was cleared, protesters remained on the streets outside.  This was after dawn, and many of these protesters were older people angry at the treatment of the students.  The police ordered them to clear the streets, some of which are important traffic arteries.  Eventually, water cannons were used on these protesters to force them off of one of the big streets (中山南路).

No deaths have been reported.  I did not see any firearms or tear gas.  There were rumors of people in the crowd with tear gas canisters.  (If this is correct, I suspect those people were more likely to be gang members than students.  A group preparing for non-violent resistance simply does not arm its members or even allow them to be armed.  I am not sure any tear gas canisters were actually used.)  The NTU hospital issued a press release this morning saying that it had treated around 60 students for injuries sustained in the protests.  I did not hear of any critical injuries.  Injured protesters interviewed by the media generally pointed to contusions, bruises, cuts, and pains from being violently pulled.


I will write a separate post with more interpretation.  For now, this is simply a statement of what I think happened.

Inside protests and outside protests

March 23, 2014

[I began writing this post this afternoon. It reflects how my thinking has crystallized over the past few days. Most was written before tonight’s events at the Executive Yuan. I’m not yet sure how that changes my thinking.]


In my Frozen Garlic Manifesto, I claim to have one clear political bias.  I am a democrat.  In light of this week’s events, maybe I need to clarify that.  I believe, first and foremost, in representative democracy.  This belief has led me to have very deeply conflicted feelings about the student protests.

On the one hand, I am humbled and inspired by the student’s sincerity, passion, organization, self-control, and maturity.  Last night, I listened to a small-scale lecture from a NTU law student rebut the KMT legal explanation for why it was legal to send the bill to the floor in the way they did.  The student was thorough, careful, and utterly persuasive.  These students are humbling, and they make me proud to be part of this society.

On the other hand, well, this part is more complicated.

There are two conceptually different protests.  One is outside.  I have no problems at all with the protests outside the legislature.  I believe they are legal, justified, and I personally support just about everything they want.  The protest inside the legislature is an entirely different animal.

By occupying the legislative chamber, the students have effectively suspended the normal operations of democracy.  The legislature cannot act while the students are there.  This is not something we should take lightly.

No matter how much popular support a protest group has, it does not have the same legitimacy as a democratically elected legislature.  We simply do not allow marchers to make decisions for the general public.  The public conferred the power to make public decisions on that group of 113 people through its votes in the 2012 election.  The protesters outside have not gotten any such formal delegation of power from the populace.  In 2006, the Red Shirt protesters mobilized hundreds of thousands of people and they had widespread public sympathy, but that did not negate the results of the 2004 election.  Chen Shui-bian remained the legitimately elected president.  Similarly, the 113 members of the legislature remain the only people who can make legislative decisions on behalf of the general public.

In almost all other cases, I would consider occupying the legislative chamber to be illegitimate and anti-democratic, and clearing them by force (if necessary) would be entirely appropriate.  In this particular case, I think there is a small gray area, and I believe the occupation is justified.  However, there are limits on how long the students can stay and what they can demand, and I am worried that they are getting dangerously close to crossing these (fuzzy) lines.

In light of the extreme importance of the Cross Straits Services Trade Agreement and the questionable way in which it was being processed in the legislature, I think it was justifiable for the students to demand a time out.  This is the most important issue to come before the legislature in the six years of Ma’s presidency, and it has the potential to fundamentally reshape society.  It deserves careful treatment.  It was not getting careful treatment, to say the least.  What the students have done is to tell the society to wake up and pay attention, the media to cover the debates in a substantive and responsible way, and the parties to stop merely grandstanding for political points or blindly following orders from above.  They are telling all of us to pay attention, understand the choice, make a sober decision based on society’s best interests, and to follow the legal processes for making such a decision.

However, this implies limits.  They can stay in the legislature only as long as necessary to focus society’s attention on the substantive content of the CSSTA.  Moreover, they cannot demand that the legislature must pass or not pass various items.  The power to legislate belongs to the 113 elected legislators and to them only.

When the students demand that the CSSTA be withdrawn and renegotiated, or that a supervisory law must be passed before the CSSTA can be passed, they are crossing a line.  When they make substantive demands like this, they are effectively claiming a higher legitimacy than the legislature itself.  Note that those types of demands are entirely proper when they are made on the street.  However, when protesters inside the legislature make those same demands and refuse to allow the legislature to resume operations until those demands are met, they are holding democracy hostage.  This is where I get off the train.


Ultimately, a critical sticking point for me is that the KMT won the 2012 elections.  They have a legitimate majority in the legislature.  Many people are arguing that Ma and the KMT have betrayed the voters’ intentions, but I’m having a hard time accepting that argument.

Ma (and his whole party) ran for re-election trumpeting the achievements of his first term and promising to continue on the same path.  ECFA was the most important achievement of the first term.  CSSTA is an extension and continuation of ECFA.  There is a very good argument to be made that CSSTA is exactly what the voters should have expected Ma to do when they voted to re-elect him (and his party) in 2012.  This is not the proposed peace agreement.  Ma explicitly stepped away from that, promising that he would not sign a peace agreement except under very specific conditions.  He never said anything similar about not wanting to further deepen the economic relationship.  Ma won the election, and elections have consequences.


Over the years, I have heard people in many countries justify what I considered to be anti-democratic movements by claiming that the very essence of the country was in danger.  I rejected those arguments, usually with quite a bit of disdain.  I’m starting to have a little more appreciation for just how difficult it can be to stick to democratic ideals in the face of a policy direction that you strongly disagree with.  Still, I prefer to lose the immediate political fight and save the democratic structure.


When I started writing this post, I believed the students were still on the acceptable side of the (very fuzzy) line.  However, their demands were becoming more substantive and less about democratic procedure, and they were getting dangerously close to the line.  I haven’t had time to digest tonight’s events at the EY which are still unfolding, but I think it is getting closer and closer to the time when students should leave the government institutions and take their protests back to the streets while they still can.  It is very difficult to quit while you are ahead, and I fear they have missed their opportunity.


March 23, 2014

The students have walked right into a trap.  Storming the Executive Yuan is a terrible strategic mistake.  This will probably be the point when public opinion turns against them.  At the very least, the students will begin to be divided by vicious factional infighting among doves and hawks about tactics.

I was at the legislature last night, and the EY was tightly guarded.  How in the world have the students been able to get in so easily. It almost makes me wonder if it was left open on purpose to tantalize the students.  Ma et al would have known that the EY would be an irresistible target for hardline students.

The KMT may just have been smart enough to let the students destroy themselves.

I hope I’m wrong.

Meddling Kids

March 23, 2014

On the lighter side, I can’t stop thinking about Scooby Doo.  Scooby Doo is one of my favorite childhood cartoons.  In it, a group of teenagers and their dog, Scooby Doo, solve a series of mysteries.  At the end of every mystery, they unmask the villain who always exclaims, “and I’d have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!”

President Ma seemed to have this fight won.  The DPP was going to protest loudly and ineffectively, and the KMT caucus was going to follow orders and pass the Cross Straits Services Trade Agreement.  We’ve seen this soap opera before, and we know how it usually ends.

And then the students stepped in and changed everything.  If the CSSTA eventually doesn’t pass, Ma will be justified in echoing a host of thwarted schemers:

The irony is that these students were only ready to take on such a monumental task because Ma has been training them for two years.  They’ve been practicing and learning how to run large scale protests.  Chris Wang at Taipei Times has written a very good story today making exactly this point.

Scooby Dooby Doo!

What a crazy week

March 23, 2014

So let’s see.  Has anything much happened this week in Taiwan politics?


  1. The legislature controversially passed the Cross Straits Service Trade Agreement, perhaps the most important issue to come before the legislature in the six years of Ma’s presidency, through committee by extremely questionable means.  Ma had explicitly ordered his party to pass the damn thing, and he didn’t care how.  The committee convener obliged by sneaking off to corner and whispering his decision into a microphone inside his jacket.
  2. Student groups rushed the Legislative Yuan, expelled police, set up in the main chamber, repelled several attempts to dislodge them the first night, settled in for the long haul, and electrified the whole society.
  3. The court ruled that Speaker Wang should retain his KMT membership, thus ensuring he will continue as speaker of the Legislative Yuan.  Ma’s attempted purge of Wang was the cause of last year’s September Strife.
  4. A different court convicted the Special Prosecutor of illegally leaking information to President Ma.  The information in question was precisely the evidence used to justify Ma’s attempt to purge Wang.
  5. The Council of Grand Justices ruled that the Assembly and Parade Act is unconstitutional.  This is a ruling that opposition parties have been seeking for years.
  6. The tenth anniversary of the assassination attempt on President Chen on the eve of the 2004 presidential election was this week.
  7. Ma tried to convent the heads of the five branches of government (Executive, Legislative, Judicial, Control, and Examination) to discuss solutions to resolve the disorder in the legislature.  Speaker Wang refused to attend.


Other than that, nothing much happened this week.  (Unless I’ve forgotten something else!)

Can extra-democratic tactics be democratic?

March 21, 2014

Is it justifiable for students to physically occupy the legislature?  Is it undemocratic to use extra-legal methods?  Many thoughtful people are asking these sorts of questions right now, and they are good questions.  As always, it depends.  However, my answer is almost always “no.”  It is almost never ok to go outside normal democratic procedures.  Bypassing democracy is rarely the way to protect democracy.

However, as I’ve thought about this case, I have come to the conclusion that this is one of those rare exceptional cases.


The Services Trade Agreement is a critical decision for Taiwan’s future.  This pact has the potential to fundamentally alter Taiwan’s character.  It is not merely a question of liberalizing Taiwan’s international trade regime; it will have important implications for Taiwan’s sovereignty.  Moreover, it has now become a point of contestation for whether or not democratic procedures will be respected.  The free trade aspect, as important as it is, is merely the third-most important aspect of the current struggle.

Such a monumental proposed change needs to be legitimized by the legislature.  Short-cuts are simply not acceptable.  The KMT has the right to pass the pact and it has the right to do so without making any changes, but it must do so by following certain procedures and demonstrating a unity of purpose.  In any democratic process, the losing side has the right to lose according to the rules.


The trigger for the student occupation was the Interior Committee hearing in which KMT Convener Chang Ching-chung 張慶忠 slunk off in the corner and unilaterally determined that the committee should report the bill to the floor.  Chang justified his action by pointing out that DPP legislators had physically occupied the podium.  He wanted to report the bill that day, and this was the only way he could see to do it.

Opposition obstruction is a challenge for every ruling party in every legislature in the world.  There are many ways to deal with obstruction.  Ruling parties can change the procedural rules to eliminate common obstruction strategies.  For example, they can shorten the amount of time allotted for debate or rule particular amendments out of bounds.  In Taiwan’s immediate context, the opposition often blocks proceedings by occupying the podium.  I have always wondered why the KMT doesn’t simply change the rules to allow the speaker to declare that another location in the room is now the official podium.  Another thing the KMT could have done was to bypass the committee stage.  That is, if the KMT didn’t think it could pass the bill in the committee, the floor has the power to take a vote to pull the bill out of committee.  Alternatively, Chang could have demanded a vote in the Interior Committee to report the bill to the floor.

What these various tactics all require is repeated effort and high degrees of unity from the ruling party.  The opposition may strenuously oppose, but the ruling party has the numbers and can eventually prevail IF it can match the opposition’s intensity.  This may require painful vote after vote.  It may require many days or even weeks of scorched earth legislative tactics.  Most importantly, it requires the ruling party to collectively and individually assume political responsibility for the measure.  If it is really that important, every legislator has to get his or her hands dirty.  In the face of an intense minority, the measure is only legitimized if a majority proves again and again that it is unified in support.

That is not what happened.  Rather, the KMT tried to take a shortcut.  We don’t know whether the KMT is unified in support of this bill because the leadership hasn’t asked them to demonstrate solidarity.  Heck, even Convener Chang doesn’t want to claim ownership for the pact.  He was quoted as saying there was no reason for him to take responsibility since he wasn’t the one who signed the agreement.  He was just following orders.


In effect, what the students are doing is to remind the “adults” about the basic principles of democracy.  The various student groups have many varied demands; all of them insist that Chang’s decision should not stand.  They want the pact sent back to committee where it should receive a thorough review.  This student occupation movement is not like the Arab Spring or the American Occupy Movement.  The students are not asking for fundamental regime or structural changes.  They are demanding that the politicians respect the process.  I think they understand that eventually they will have to yield the floor back to the legislators, and the legislators will make the critical decisions about how to handle the Services Trade Agreement.  However, students are focusing public attention on the procedures and the content of the pact so that when the legislators make those decisions, the public will be paying closer attention.  Instead of only asking what party leaders want, legislators will have to worry about what their voters think.  Hopefully that will be enough to convince legislators to eschew any further shortcuts.

High Drama

March 20, 2014

I feel like I should write something right now.  We are in the midst of a crucial period for Taiwan’s future.  The political fight over the Services Trade Agreement is coming to a climax, and this is the most important decision Taiwan has made since Ma was elected in 2008.  It is also turning into a fight over democracy itself, as the KMT tries to ram the agreement through by any means possible.

Students are occupying the legislature.  The blue media is inevitably trying to smear them, but I am quite impressed with their focus on the democratic process.  They may have fundamentally changed the fight from one of those partisan clashes that the DPP would inevitably lose to a broader struggle.  (It’s amusing to watch DPP politicians try to catch up to the students, who apparently took everyone by surprise.)

To add another layer of complexity, the court today ruled today that the KMT could not strip Speaker Wang of his seat.  Wang is thus suddenly secure in his position and may be in a pivotal position to make or break Ma and the pact.  This fight may define Wang’s legacy just as much as it will inevitably define Ma’s presidency.  I think it is a coincidence that Wang’s decision comes at the height of the current political clash, but I think his case is fundamentally tied to it.  I believe the reason Ma tried to purge him last September was precisely that Ma worried Wang would not push the Services Trade pact through the legislature.  We’ll see.

Unfortunately, I can’t write anything much right now.  I’m completely swamped, and I simply have no time.  I’m barely keeping up with events as they happen.  Anyway, we will probably need to wait a while before we can understand what is happening.  Now is the time to follow events as they happen.


By the way, current events are so all-encompassing that I almost missed the fact that today is the 10th anniversary of one of the most important events in recent Taiwanese history.  Ten years ago, one day before the presidential election, President Chen was shot at a campaign event.  The shooting probably got him re-elected, poisoned the political atmosphere, gave the KMT an excuse to avoid any fundamental reform, probably led to Chen’s imprisonment, and maybe even produced the huge KMT majorities that led to ECFA and the current pact.  The current fight is so important that we are ignoring all of that!