Protesting students need 101 class in democracy

Robust civic engagement must come with a willingness to compromise

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 2:33am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 2:33am

A student-led mass protest in Taipei to demand withdrawal of a service trade pact with the mainland saw tens of thousands of Taiwanese exercising utmost restraint to bring the demonstration to an admirably peaceful ending.

Chanting "Safeguard democracy" and "Withdraw the services trade pact", the students even cleaned up their litter outside the Presidential Office when their leaders announced the end of the day's protest.

Organisers say half a million people participated, while police put the figure at 120,000. Even if the lower estimate is accurate, the resolution of the stand-off was seen by some observers as a sign of a strong democracy.

But how mature is it? And should what happened over the past two weeks be held out as an example for Asian neighbours? The answer is both yes and no.

Ma remains the elected president, responsible for all Taiwanese and not just students

In the "wild lily" student movement of 1990, a group of students led 22,000 supporters through a six-day, sit-in at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, a facility open to the public, to demand direct elections of president and congress.

In contrast, students in the current "sunflower" movement stormed parliament illegally. They demanded that a services trade pact with the mainland be brought under new scrutiny. The pact calls for service industries, such as banking and hospitals, to be opened up across the Taiwan Strait. Students fear large mainland companies will dominate the sector, destroying local businesses and killing off jobs. More supervisors from the mainland will be sent over to boss around locals, they say.

The protesters also see the pact as part of the mainland's economic offensive to ultimately force locals to succumb to its control, paving the way for eventual cross-strait unification.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou has long been criticised for his poor crisis-management, and it took him days to respond to demands for a fresh review and a law overseeing future deals with the mainland.

Regardless of how unpopular Ma is or how reckless he was in dealing with the incident, he remains the elected president, responsible for all Taiwanese and not just students who seize parliament illegally.

This is the foundation of democracy. Otherwise, there is no point in electing a president by popular vote.

In effect, the students' actions suggest they see nothing wrong with holding the government hostage and dictating their terms.

What if people who believe the deal is beneficial to Taiwan stormed the legislature or the Presidential Office to press their own demands?

The students should realise democracy, which they claim to be protecting, thrives when it's deeply committed to respect and tolerance for different opinions. There have been reports people have taken to deleting social media accounts held by those on the other side of the issue.

One obvious impact of the protest has been a further widening of the political divide in Taiwan. In pressing their demands, the students insisted on a winner-take-all attitude. But they should know that complex issues affecting all of society require negotiation and compromise.