Taiwan protests: view from mainland China

Deng Yuwen and Jonathan Sullivan say the chaotic scenes of student protests across the strait bode ill for political liberalisation on the mainland but they have, at least, prompted discussion of democratic rights

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 April, 2014, 5:51pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 4:29am

The sudden eruption of student protests in Taiwan, ostensibly against the cross-strait services and trade agreement but incorporating wider concerns about President Ma Ying-jeou's government, has elicited minimal coverage in the mainland media.

Due to controls exerted on the media, it has been difficult to find reports or analysis of the Taiwan student movement.

One exception, an editorial in the Global Times on March 24, was emblematic of the tone of coverage of the escalating protests: a predictably adamant condemnation of the students' behaviour. Their actions are variously described as illegal and shameful, bringing chaos, disruption and paralysis to Taiwanese society.

Given the Chinese government's insistence on stability, such framing of the student protests is hardly news.

The same newspaper also averred that people on the mainland regarded the unfolding events in Taiwan with detached interest, given that they were taking place under democratic conditions. This explained the calm and objective manner of those witnessing the unfolding spectacle in Taipei.

But based on the discussions we have seen on Chinese social media, Global Times' editors are wrong about this. Although they are bystanders, people on the mainland are discussing the events in Taiwan with anything but calm detachment. Weibo and Weixin have lit up with conversations about the students' actions, and, whether for or against, debate has been intense.

Among people on the mainland, particularly intellectuals, the student occupations in Taiwan have given rise to two contrasting views.

The first is captured by paraphrasing one of the slogans borrowed by the Taiwanese students from the 19th-century French novelist Victor Hugo: when dictatorship becomes a reality, revolution becomes a right. Proponents of this view believe that although Taiwan has an elected government and constitutional political system, Ma's attempt to railroad the service agreement through the legislature failed to fulfil the obligation of accountability and thus lost legitimacy.

As a result, the students, as representatives of the people, had the right to use direct action. Not surprisingly, this view tends to be much more popular among activists and opponents of the authoritarian regime in Beijing.

The second view does not endorse the students' occupation and is particularly critical of the violent scenes that surrounded the failed attempt to occupy the Executive Yuan building.

Despite the overwhelmingly peaceful behaviour of the students and the violence on the part of the police, the selective availability of information has created a sense among some on the mainland that the students employed violent means. Proponents of this view argue that people have the right to express their discontent with the government, but they should use the proper means to do so.

They argue that opposition should avoid actions such as occupying government buildings because they damage the rule of law and create disorder.

Many endorse Ma's decision to use force to clear the site of the Executive Yuan protest in an attempt to restore order. This view is popular among those who put law and order above all else.

Regardless of the viewpoint, the unsaid comparison that everyone is making is between Taiwan and the mainland. What would have happened had such a protest occurred on the mainland? How would the government in Beijing have reacted?

Although the two sides differ in their assessment of the student protests, they share a sense this is something that could only happen in a democratic context. And, of course, the strongly nationalist forums are full of people decrying Taiwanese democracy and gloating over the chaotic scenes.

For those mainland intellectuals who believe Taiwan's experience with democracy may be a model for Beijing, recent events are a source of concern.

Many argue that a hypothetical future democracy in China should avoid mimicking Taiwan. The student occupations come hot on the heels of mass protests that have brought chaos to other democratic polities. These events provide another excuse for the Chinese government to continue to deny any opportunities for political liberalisation. They also provide fodder for those who worry that Taiwanese-style democracy has shown time and again its capacity for bringing widespread disruption to society.

These attitudes do not augur well for political liberalisation in China, even as the Taiwanese students' occupation raises awareness of democratic rights and suggests means for resistance that may encourage mainland activists.

Naturally, conditions for activists are more constrained on the mainland, and the occupation of government buildings is unlikely, not to mention unwise. However, there is perhaps something to be learnt from the way that people exercise their democratic rights, how governments respond to their citizens' demands and how the students have organised and communicated.

Deng Yuwen is a Beijing-based political analyst and a Chevening visiting fellow at the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute. Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor and deputy director of the China Policy Institute