• Mon
  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 4:01am
CommentInsight & Opinion

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


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This article is now closed to comments

"What would have happened had such a protest occurred on the mainland?"
how about thinking about what would happen if the same protest happened in America. Anyone trying to storm congress would be shot on sight! I blame Taiwan's lack of security on this mess.
What does it matter what people in the mainland think?
Until you recognize that their education, the media, books and magazine, the internet, the television, etc are all controlled and censored by the Communist Party, then it makes no sense to consider the opinion of somebody locked in a box with an opinion that the Party intentional created for them. That is to say, how can people have an opinion about something they know nothing about? These facts make you broad assumptions seem foolish.
Great logic! The only people who has a right to think must be Americanized. Otherwise, they are brainless and irrelevant.
Formerly ******
Ah, yes, the usual China apologists here. Yes, China, the orderly country wherein the government tortures and murders some political prisoners and supports N. Korea, a concentration camp masquerading as a country.
To paraphrase Ben Franklin, one of America's founding fathers (who, by the way, unlike Mao, didn't murder tens of millions), 'Those who favor security over freedom will end up with neither.'
"If it happened in Beijing" , and "how would the government there react " ?
why do I have a sense of deja-vu there ? have the words Tien Anmen already been forgotten ?
we already know the answers to these questions.
Formerly ******
Dear Casual:
There have been many demonstrations in the area of the Capitol building in D.C. In fact, in one US state, Wisconsin, leftist demonstrators occupied a the legislative, capitol building for several months in 2011. Guest what? Not only was no one shot, but very few were even arrested.
Hey, good, ole USA, gotta love it - land of the free and the home of the brave.
Dear Casual:
There have been many demonstrations in the area of the Capitol building in D.C. In fact, in one US state, Wisconsin, leftist demonstrators occupied a the legislative, capitol building for several months in 2011 - 2012. Guest what? Not only was no one shot, but very few were even arrested.
Hey, good, ole USA, gotta love it - land of the free and the home of the brave.
已經有許多示威活動在國會大廈的直流事實上的區域,在一個美國的州,威斯康星州,左翼示威者在2011 - 2012年佔據了立法,國會大廈幾個月。客戶是什麼?不僅是沒有人出手,但很少甚至被逮捕。
嘿,好,OLE美國,總得愛它 - 自由之地,勇士的家鄉。
The DPP and the Green Gang opened the door for them in fact.. they also supply the 'students' with Pizza, Beer, blanket etc..
'Smart' folks watch FoxNews and I heard they are very 'balanced' :)
I don't see Xinhua reporting on the Taiwanese protests...why not? That's because Xinhua is pure Chinese propaganda and no one reads it anyway.


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