Rebutting Criticisms of Student Protests
There’s been a lot of commentary and criticism of the student protestors. Here are my responses:
- The 2012 Taiwanese Legislative elections gave the KMT an electoral mandate to push through the Government’s agenda - Yes and no. Winning an election on a certain election platform does not give the ruling party the automatic right to expect the public and opposition parties to accept any policy proposal they choose, especially those not explicitly promised in the election campaign, to legislate on. Furthermore, in Taiwan, legislators are more often than not elected on local issues, and via factional affiliation, rather than on national issues. That President Ma won re-election as the same time as KMT legislators won a majority of seats does not mean that most pro-KMT voters who elected KMT legislators to their seats did so because they supported Ma’s policy agenda or his pro-China legislative objectives. The practice of electoral democracy is more nuanced than that. Furthermore, the reason the students occupied the Legislative Yuan in the first place was because they perceived a breakdown in democratic mechanisms in the legislative body because the KMT reneged on a promise to review the Trade Services Pact (CSSTA) clause for clause and then claimed it had passed committee and had been sent to the floor for a vote. If this was not a blatant and obvious lie, then it was at the very least a cynical and anti-democratic tactic that arguably may have broken Legislative Yuan rules and certainly breached a previous cross-party consensus. This is what the students are protesting - KMT legislative dirty tricks to bypass the Legislature providing proper screening of the pact. Furthermore, the KMT Legislator’s tactics were endorsed and legitimised by President Ma on the morning of the18th which is why the students feel he is ultimately responsible. President Ma made passing ECFA and this trade pact a personal political goal and stated it could not be reviewed clause for clause, or not passed, and he acted as KMT Chairman to ‘3-line’whip’ his party’s legislators into making sure the pact was ratified by the Legislative Yuan as soon as possible. Finally, the Legislative Yuan is the highest deliberative body in the country. It has the power to determine the legislative agenda and can choose what policies to legislate on. It also has the power to depose the Prime Minister, who is selected by the President. The President or the Premier can’t demand that the Legislature do anything.
- Trying to occupy the Executive Yuan was a major mistake by students - no, this was a necessary escalation after the the Premier’s failed meeting with the students and after the President’s press conference in which he patronised and then blithely ignored the demands of the student protestors on Sunday morning (23/03/2014). Storming the Executive Yuan was strategically a logical place to expand the protest being as it was so near by and would gain the Government’s immediate attention, which it did. The crucial strategic mistake of the students on the Sunday night at about between 8.30pm and 9pm was to withdraw from inside of the building. That allowed Premier Jiang to send in riot police as an effective counter response. What the students should have done was occupy the entire interior space of the Executive Yuan en masse and block the doors in the same way as the Legislative Yuan - a little force to get in then barricade inside and stage a peaceful sit in, including in the court yard.
- The storming of the Executive Yuan lost the students the ‘moral high ground’ and cost them public support - I’ve seen a few commentators suggest this without any evidence of such a result other than perhaps from the reactions in mainstream media, most of which is pro-Government and had been smearing the student protestors from the moment they occupied the Legislative Yuan on the 17th March. I’ve seen polls indicating that post 3-24, public support, and sympathy, for the students has actually risen rather than fallen. To see people speculating that the student’s have lost the high ground or public support absent any concrete evidence of this is disappointing and more dangerously only facilitates domestic and international media framing of the students as being utterly isolated in their cause.
- The Government was entirely right to order police to remove students and they used appropriate force. If this had happened else where the response would have been far harsher - There is an argument for saying that no democratic Government should allow the occupation of its day to day operational premises. On the other hand, saying that the response from the police was light compared to other places is a derisory argument. Here’s another - in North Korea protesting against the state will get you locked up or executed. Taiwanese students should be lucky the police didn’t kill them all.
- The Legislature cannot revoke or reverse the passing of the CSSTA through committee - the Legislative Yuan is the highest deliberate body in the country. It has total control of its own legislative agenda and, as we saw from KMT Speaker Wang, it can choose to send the pact back to committee or kick it from the legislative agenda. The only thing preventing this is President Ma, Premier Jiang, and the KMT legislative caucus.