About the Taiwanese Way to Protest for Democracy, Participation and Independence
On Tuesday the 18th of March 2014, Taiwanese students occupied the legislative Yuan, a governmental building, in Taipei. The root cause of this was a trade contract between China and Taiwan planned over the last couple of months, which simplifies investment policies in the other country.
The programme is a controversial issue within Taiwan; critics worry that it will automatically lead to an over domination of Taiwan by China, especially the demolition of Taiwan’s service sector. Others see no future for Taiwan in the globalised world – a small island somewhere in the East of Asia – without close relations to China. And yet, others wish for strong trade relations with China, but they want to get rid of the “Republic of China” written in their passports, and seek for recognition as independent nation. But, after collecting some local opinions, the latter seemed to be nothing more than a brave utopia. Whoever I ask, they are worried of becoming “a second Hong Kong” – a state completely incorporated with China.
Against this background, the actual trigger of Tuesday’s events was in fact the way how the government dealt with this agreement. It was not treated by Taiwanese law, but discussed in a hidden way, behind closed doors and not with enough time to properly negotiate.
As a result, the Taiwanese people feel ignored by their own government, and are even more worried about their democracy. The human barricades and the occupation of the Yuan marks only the beginning. Today, 4 days later, the protest has evolved and is attracting more and more people from all over Taiwan to the capital.
This, I told myself, I cannot miss.
I had different expectations from what I read in Taiwanese newspapers – some spoke about a peaceful revolution, others about a violent revolt of some troublemakers (the latter is the main opinion in Taiwanese media, which are often close to the pro-Chinese government).
I was absolutely overwhelmed as I reached the place of the protest. Firstly, it extends over a vast area, and I had to make my way through some “side demonstration” where people shared their opinions and leaflets for and against nearly everything, before I entered the street which goes straight to the Yuan. As far as my eye could see, mostly young people occupied the street and listened quietly to voices from big speakers. The atmosphere was strong and powerful – but not threatening to anybody, except only those the protest addresses.
Incredible size and organisation
I, who have taken part in many demonstrations throughout my life, have never experienced anything like this protest before. Considering the amount of people present, it is extremely quiet, with only people’s voices coming from the speakers. It also is extremely structured, with no signs of any hectic behaviour or agitation.
Those who try to get from one place to another follow the given directions (even if that means it takes 20 minutes to get from one side of the street to the other); nobody carelessly forgets their waste; people queue patiently in front of the Dixie-loos; and to brighten up the grey day – and also because it is the flower of the protest – people placed sunflowers every now and then at improvised signposts.
I wished that I could have understood what the speakers were saying in Chinese, but I had to believe the translations that I received. The people somewhere far away on a podium were on the one hand those who organised the protest and shared the information in the internet. They repeated slogans about independence, justice and democracy, thanked the crowd for the support, and insisted on the importance of not giving up.
On the other hand, teachers from the Taipei universities informed about the agreement and other political issues and the Taiwanese history.
‘’I am here because I read something written by one of these professors”, a student tells me. “He wrote that we will learn how democracy works and that we have to stand up for our rights. So I came here.”
I ask her about her opinion on the issues. She shrugs her shoulders. “The problem is that most of us Taiwanese don’t even know that there is this agreement. And those who know about its existence don’t know what it is about. That’s the reason we learn about it now.” She is by far not the only person thinking that way. She feels that it is right to be here, but she does not want to form her own opinion yet.
I am interested, how it feels to be part of the protest. “Amazing!” A student, handing out leaflets to everybody who crosses his way, beams all over his face. “What our government does is illegal and undemocratic, and we are here to raise our voices for our country, all together. I feel like I’m being part of a big thing.”
A fellow student agrees, “this is about much more than the agreement itself and we will not allow to become Chinese. We will fight for our rights.”
Is she positive about the protestor’s success? She nods confidently. “Yes. There are so many of us and we won’t give up. “
Another of Taiwan’s fights for independence
The protest during the last few days which has gained the name “sunflower revolution,” is not the first mass protest in Taiwan, but the amount of people joining in and the occupation during this one is unequalled. In the 90s, some Taiwanese, mostly students (many of whom have nowadays important positions in the opposition’s party) successfully made an effort to get Taiwan’s independence. Taiwan stayed a part of China on paper, but became politically and economically independent. Also in 1996, for the first time since Japanese and then Chinese occupation, a Taiwanese president was elected in free elections.
“It is good to see that protesting is worth it”, says a student. “Besides, we’ve got the opposition on our side and I suppose it’s not only because they hope to get more votes in the next elections.” He laughs. “But this doesn’t mean that the generation from back then supports us a lot. My parents aren’t happy that I am here.” He is not the only one who tells me this. “They are still scared of telling their opinion, because that was dangerous when they were young. Also I suppose they were indoctrinated when growing up and would not be openly against China.”
The next people I get in touch with are a young couple who approach me asking where I am from and what brings me here. We talk a bit about different things and our studies. Both of them study Taiwanese history, a subject which is fairly new on the agenda. “Taiwan has a young and therefore fragile democracy, because we haven’t been independent for a long time. The present danger is that we will fall back”, they explain. “The agreement itself isn’t wrong or bad, no country can survive without trade relations- but it has to be fair.” And fairness, as I learn from a colourful flyer, is not being given. Firstly, because it is much easier for Chinese companies to get settled down in Taiwan than vice versa and secondly, because China has a huge advantage due to its size. The way the agreement is written down at the moment entails the risk that Chinese companies will overrun the Taiwanese service and energy sector – without equal Taiwanese success in China.
“This agreement as it is right now will lead to more and more Chinese influence in Taiwan, until we are neither theoretically nor technically independent.” Both agree that this must not happen – as long as the young adults stay persistently attached to the protest. Peaceful, optimistic and all together.
A united group of protestors
The uniting thought, which floats powerful above the masses filling several streets around the occupied building, is possibly the reason which makes the vibe at the protest so special. Even I, only connected to Taiwan through love at first sight, feel welcome. Many of the protestors might not be interested in politics or might not know anything about the agreement, but over the last few days it has become almost social etiquette, to stand by in solidarity with those who are barricaded inside the badly ventilated building, with the police outside their doors. They are there to show impressively that they as the people of Taiwan have a voice and that they will raise it if they feel ignored. With or without one’s own opinion – lately a visit to the Yuan simply is part of the day.
But that does not mean that all the participants are nothing but protest tourists. Not only the occupiers in the Yuan know exactly what they stand for. I also meet a lot of young people in the streets who have not moved further than to the next bathroom since hours or days and determined share their opinions.
“We are here and we fight. We make sure everybody knows what we want so they can form their own opinion. But most of all – the media will not provoke us with their lies. We stay peaceful.” A group of students holds sun flowers and signs in the air.
“It was high time that something happened. It’s good to see that protesting becomes a trend so quickly”, explains a student. “We all know that our government sucks. They don’t care about what we want.” “And they don’t communicate with the people”, adds a friend. “So we will force them to now.” The president did neither comment on the protest yet, nor did he show up, but “he cannot hide forever. And we are not done here.”
The Taiwanese ensure with united powers that the protest does not stop until the prime goal – a legal procedure of the trade contract – is reached.
Support does not only come from those who spend their time listening on the asphalt- regardless of rain, wind, earthquakes – and at day or night.
Support also comes from people who donate food, drinks, blankets, first aid kits and litter bags; from lawyers and doctors who offer their help for free and from thousands of volunteers who, positioned nearly everywhere, prevent chaos, who hand out food, heat plasters and leaflets and who collect and recycle litter.
The importance of Volunteering
My journey today also brought me to the litter recycling area, where a group of young men and women rummaged through litter bags, just to separate everything inside from each other.
“Why are you here?” I ask a young woman who allowed herself a little rest with some tea.
“I feel it is important that we show what we stand for and that we not just put up with things we don’t like. If we don’t fight, we can’t complain in the end.”
I point at the garbage. “And why do you help here?”
She gives a shrug. “I want to help. This whole thing wouldn’t work out without volunteers.”
She tells how the organizers asked for volunteers in social media and via the app “Line” (similar to Viber/ Whatsapp) so she made her way up from her hometown. Since Wednesday she sorts garbage, listens to speeches and shouts slogans. She points at papers hung up everywhere with some characters carelessly scribbled on them. “Everybody is asked to help.”
“That means I could help as well?” I ask.
She grins at me and gives me a pair of plastic gloves. “We leave our bags over there.” I am friendly welcomed by the team and briefed about Taiwanese recycling.
Volunteers come and go, stay the whole evening or only one hour, we talk about how much fun it is to rebel for a really good thing and eat in between what is brought, until the sun sets above us and all the others who inwardly contentedly and patiently sit around. I say goodbye as the sky is black and it gets difficult to distinguish the garbage from each other and walk, accompanied by Taiwanese peace songs, one after one to the Metro station. My back is sore, I am exhausted, but I am filled with fight spirit and I cannot wait to get home to get well rested.
The protest keeps going tomorrow.