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.