Inside protests and outside protests

[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.

12 Responses to “Inside protests and outside protests”

  1. Jenna Cody Says:

    I agree with you about 99%.

    The 1% I disagree with you over is this:

    You and I and everyone else reading this blog knows that the street protests would have been entirely ineffective. The government is very good at ignoring them (no matter what party’s in power). They would have done exactly and precisely nothing to change what happened in the legislature. The people saying “just protest in the street! Don’t take it inside the legislature!” know it too, and I suspect that’s what many of them want (for the protests to ultimately be completely ineffective, as they generally have been since I moved here in late 2006 – I was here for the red shirts, went to the protest to see, but didn’t participate and didn’t support them).

    It’s easy to say “take your protests to the streets” when you know that doing so won’t accomplish a thing.

    On the other hand, I also agree with you that the original reason for occupying the legislative yuan made their actions legitimate, yet at this point they really should step back, keep it about that, and stop with the crazy demands they have no place to make. Have a re-set button to get that bill more closely scrutinized, and hope to god it doesn’t pass (under a fair procedure) or takes so long that the KMT runs out of time (because I ultimately – from what little I know of it – doesn’t seem like it’d be good for Taiwan).

    I’m also amused by the idea of calling ECFA an “achievement”. More like a disaster from my perspective. 🙂

  2. hustenbonbon2 Says:

    Ehe, call me cynical, but the 113 members of legislature haven’t done much even before the protest occupation… just my personal opinion.

    While I absolutely agree with the protest and 100% disapprove of the parliament buliding occupation, there are a couple of things I want to discuss about, and the first thing is that the students in the parliament building have nothing to do with the ones who broke into the cabinet office last night, nor did the former authorize or encourage the latter & what happened last night. I think it remains debatable if we can say that the students in the parliament should be accountable for leading this movement toward violence as the mass media may imply.

    But what happened last night, is not democratic at all… people there were just out of control. Feeling sad for the riot.

    Second thing is that I doubt if we can say the students had taken over the legislature and thus the legislative power from the real 113 members of parliament simply by occupying the building. The students occupy a building, not the legal positions of elected representives. I do know the consequences that most of us “adults” worrying if the building is going to be taken for another week or even month, but I think the members of legislature should remain their duty still in a new “building” or wherever other places applicable. I don’t know, it would be unbelievable (and a little bit funny, too) to me if I heard they saying their job cannot be done, both inside & outside the parliament building… sorry for being cynical again…

    Last thing but not the least, I know the demands from the student group will unlikely succeed (and frankly speaking, their demands are a bit too ideal), I still blame the adult politicians more than these students.

  3. David Reid Says:

    It will take some time before the final outcome of these protests are known. Whether the strategies employed were right or wrong depends a lot on the final outcome. If Taiwan ends up with an improved and more robust democratic process then that will be a good thing. An increasingly authoritarian executive or “mob rule” by protesters will be bad results.

    I do think there is a good argument for having a set date to end the occupation of Legislative Yuan. The occupiers could have said we will leave the LY on a certain date to allow legislators to debate and vote on the law. This would have ensured that there was intense scrutiny and focus on the legislative process.

  4. Xiaochen Su Says:

    While I completely agree with you on your differentiation of protesters inside and outside the Legislative Yuan, and applaud you for your continued beliefs on the ideals of democracy, I would just like to point out that to simply support existing structures of democracy for the sake of democracy’s vague presence is at best an unrealistic expectation, and at worst, American-style propaganda.

    In the past years, we have seen too many “new” democracies put in place without proper education of the populace and the so-called “leaders” and no setup of proper institutions, legal, social, or bureaucratic, to ensure proper functioning of these democracies. The consequences of such in Thailand, Ukraine, and the Middle East has been blatantly obvious.

    I will not lump Taiwan together with these situations, but one commonality does exist. That is the fact that its still-young democratic structure is open to institutional changes, and people here, unlike many in the West, does not take the existing structures as established and unchangeable, but malleable and improvable.

    The consequences of such beliefs have been made obviously clear in the past few days. Both the government and the students have been keen to prove that the country’s interests can be advanced by what they believe to be justified adjustments to the existing democratic structures in ways that their opponents can easily label undemocratic and unconstitutional.

    And how do people react to undemocratic changes? Well, the only thing they can do is to stop them, using equally undemocratic ways. We cannot simply blame elected leaders for these; we must instead look to the fundamental shortcomings in democratic institutions that make these circumstances more or less inevitable.

    So, given this is the case, isn’t there some benefit to the so-called “undemocratic” actions of the students? In essence, they maybe pressing a long-needed “reset” button for Taiwanese democracy, one that jolts the whole structure into a crisis mode and push through comprehensive institutional reforms. I hate to see violent populism as a primary driver for this, but given the necessity, I think it is definitely better than nothing.

  5. joequant2013 Says:

    I also have to put a good word in for the students.

    I don’t think it works to put limits on what the students should or should demand. The students want the cross-strait pact dead. They aren’t interested in merely renegotiation, they want the pact dead and they want rules to prevent any other pacts from being negotiated.

    I strongly disagree with them, but *this is what they want*. The students in the Legislative Yuan have chosen an extremely unusual method for making their demands known, but their demands are their demands. The students are not forming a provisional government, they are making a protest, and at least with the LY, they are doing so through a peaceful responsible manner. If they manage to convince the public that the CSSTA should be killed, then it should be killed. It doesn’t seem that they have done that.

    One reason that it is good to have people that want to kill the pact outright rather than through some weird procedure is that it kicks people like me who are very strongly in favor ot he CSSTA into action. I happen to think that the CSSTA is a great thing for Taiwan, and that you’ll get enough people to agree after “opening the black box” that it will pass.

    If the CSSTA gets killed, it should not be because of some clever parliamentary procedure, its because the students say this pact is bad for Taiwan, and enough Taiwanese agree so that politicians don’t dare support it. That hasn’t happened, and I don’t think that it will.

    As interested parties, the students have a right to demand whatever they want to demand. It just so happens that the government is responding to their demands by saying no. If they can mobilize people in the next election to kick out the government, then great, that’s how democracy works.

    As far as not continuing the legislative discussion, it’s a bit of political strategy. The KMT believes that once people look more closely at the pact, the more people will conclude that the students are just wrong on the merits of the situation. By keeping the students who want to kill the pact in the legislature until they want to leave and stopping the legislature, the KMT is trying to make a point about obstructionism.

    The KMT also does not want the student protests to be a political issue in the next election. The students are going to be in the legislature until either they agree to go, the DPP agrees that they need to be kicked out, or the start becoming violent.

    As a matter of political reality, the CSSTA cannot pass until the students leave. If the KMT tries to force the CSSTA through while the students are in the legislature, the DPP will use this in the next elections. Also the students know how to use social media. If the KMT forces through the pact, then you will have the same sorts of protests. KMT cannot contine the legislative process until the students have agreed that they have lost the fight.

    As a point of political reality, the CSSTA cannot pass unless and until the either the students or the DPP agree to proceed.

    Also, the students are not “children.” They are somewhat new in the game but they understand things like social media and new mobilization tactics more than the legislators. I strongly disagree with their views, but I’m glad to see that they are participating in the political process, and that they are doing so on their own terms.

  6. joequant2013 Says:

    The other thing is that I think the students are very smart and given their situation, their strategy makes sense.

    They know that the millisecond they leave the legislative yuan and go back to the streets they will be ignored, so they have to make maximalist demands now, because they won’t be able to make them later. Also yes students disagree among themselves, but so does the DPP, and whatever happened between Ma and Wang.

    So things could have gone another way. I was holding my breath over the weekend because I was terrified that KMT bureaus all across Taiwan would be surrounded by millions of people all demanding that the CSSTA be killed. If they happened, then the KMT would have had to back down. It didn’t.

    The poll numbers for CSSTA went down by 11% after the protests, but there is a huge number of undecided, and it looks like the 11% drop is soft. No one that was in favor of the pact before this situation seems to have changed their mind, and pact supporters are starting to get on the press going point by point about why the pact is good for Taiwan. If the goal of the students was to bring attention to the pact, they’ve succeed, and I think that’s a good thing. If the students want a debate and a more through review, they’ll get it.

    I don’t think that this is what they want. They believe as passionately that the pact as bad for Taiwan as I think that it is good for Taiwan, and they want to kill it dead. What I think is going to happen over the next week or two is that they’ll call for more protests, and realize that people aren’t responding. At some point, they’ll come to the realize that they’ve lost, and they’ll push for the next issue.

    And based on what I’ve heard talking with young people, I don’t think the real problem is the CSSTA.

  7. joequant2013 Says:

    I’ve made a number of posts on this issue on my blog at

    The reason I feel *extremely* strongly about this issue is that I am an astrophysicist that runs a financial technology company in Hong Kong. High technology SME’s require a lot of close cooperation between students, universities, business people, and government.

    I would *love* to run my business from Taiwan since I have family there. Given the current regulatory environment it is *impossible* for me to do so. If the CSSTA passes and Taiwan looks like it is liberalizing trade between itself and the Mainland, what I would love to do is to set up an office in Taipei and commute between there and HK, but if CSSTA doesn’t pass and cross-strait agreements are being killed, then I cannot do this.

    So as far as CSSTA goes and high tech SME, Taiwan is *doomed* without cross strait agreements. Right now Hong Kong is in an intense competition with Shanghai and Singapore for capital and business. Taipei is not even in the running.

    It’s pretty clear that the high tech community has made these views to both the KMT and the DPP and they are responding to them. What really concerns me is the “disconnect” between the high-technology companies and Taiwan and the academic world. The fact that students feel that they weren’t consulted and are directing their anger at the CSSTA is deeply troubling, because high tech industries absolutely require close cooperation between universities and industry. There is starting to be this level of cooperation in Hong Kong, but the events in Taiwan show that something is very, very seriously broken, and that there are some big problems that need to be fixed outside of the CSSTA.

    There is a big competition in East Asia for talent and capital, and it’s a friendly and productive competition. However, things are happening very, very fast. Hong Kong is fighting like hell to avoid getting stomped by Singapore and Shanghai. This means that decisions need to be made reasonably quickly. If it takes a month or two of work to do some extra review of a trade agreement, then that is fine. If you are talking about a completely renegotiation of the CSSTA, that will take years, at which point investors and people with the capital and talent to fund new businesses, will just give up on Taiwan.

    In the financial world, Taiwan has a *terrible* reputation. The type of things that take a month to decide in Hong Kong, Shanghai, London, or New York, take *years* to decide in Taiwan. This isn’t a democracy issue (i.e. NY and London are also democracies), but a governence issue. Also, Taiwan has a reputation for being “parochial” because Taiwan has been squeezed out of international bodies, you see a lot less contact with the global community, and this is also hurting Taiwan seriously.

  8. Echo Taiwan Says:

    Thx to FG and all commentators. Very inspiring from all sides.

  9. Meet the president? | Taiwan - up close Says:

    […] For a bit more context read frozengarlic. […]

  10. H Says:

    Hi Frozen,
    I’m curious to know your opinion about Taiwan’s judicial system. I know you have a political science background, and may not feel qualified to comment on the judicial system. I’m no expert (in political science or law), but I believe the American judicial system was to provide checks and balances to the legislature. In the US, if the legislature passed a law, opponents could challenge it. I think after a law is appealed all the way up the chain of courts to the Supreme Court, most people would accept the final ruling. But perhaps the Taiwanese don’t have such a rigorous judicial system or maybe the Asian/Confucianism concept is different than Western concepts? Maybe the students/opponents of the CSSTA feel they have no recourse because there is not a sufficient check and balance to the legislature and executive branches. Of course, this fact (if true) does not make the student’s occupation of the LY any more legitimate, but I was curious about your opinion on what defects are present in the current Taiwan government system, and how it might be made better. Thanks (and btw, fantastic website).

    • frozengarlic Says:

      I have lots of opinions on how to improve the Taiwanese government, but maybe we should leave those for another time.

      My understanding the US Supreme Court has explicitly decided that it will not interfere with the internal decision-making processes of Congress. That is, as long as a majority of the members ratify the ultimate decision, that decision is legal. The procedures are up to Congress, and they can be violated or respected as the members wish. So if (by some strange, strange circumstances) the US Supreme Court were asked to decide about the Chang Ching-chung incident, they would probably decline to make a ruling, saying it was none of their business.

      Taiwan’s legal system does not always follow American logic. In fact, ROC law is based primarily on German law. (All the semi-authoritarian rulers who wanted some democratic window dressing in the late 1800s and early 1900s went for the Prussian model.) I don’t know whether the Council of Grand Justices would feel that they have the right to comment on the internal procedures of the Legislative Yuan. However, this isn’t the first time questionable procedures have been used, so they have had previous opportunities to make rulings and have not yet done so. Also, Taiwan’s judicial system, including the Council of Grand Justices, does not have a reputation for political independence. On sensitive questions, there is a widespread belief that the judicial system will defer to government desires, and the higher the court, the greater the deference. So unlike in the USA, large parts of the population would not simply accept that the Council of Grand Justices has the legitimacy to make a decisive ruling. Lack of judicial independence (whether real or merely perceived) is one of the most serious deficiencies in Taiwan’s current democratic regime.

      In short, don’t count on the courts to solve the current political impasse.

  11. H Says:

    In the US, when Obamacare was passed, it was challenged in the courts. But I think the argument more stemmed from Federal vs. State authority. I don’t think Taiwan has this distinction. The CSSTA is a trade agreement and is a completely different subject. But if there appears no check on the LY’s power, then perhaps the students feel they have no other recourse but to occupy the LY, issues of democratic legitimacy aside.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: