• Mon
  • Dec 22, 2014
  • Updated: 10:10pm
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 2:33am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 2:33am

Protesting students need 101 class in democracy

Robust civic engagement must come with a willingness to compromise

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.



For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive



This article is now closed to comments

"If a government seeks to promote a policy which is opposed by the majority"
r u saying the students are a majority?
what is the use of elections then, as the writer says. street fights and hooliganism rule!
btw, these so called demos to fight for 'democracy" are instigated and funded by foreign interests besides teh opposition parties. Just look at arab spring, kiev, and now syria. we need not discuss iraq and afghanistan, nor vietnam and korea here. of course in bangkok, some are also trying to unseat a democratically elected pm thru street protests.
This is a simpleton's view of democracy. Democracy is not switched on the morning of parliamentary elections and switched off again the same evening; expression of public opinion continuously and freely on issues is essential to democratic function. That a government succeeds at an election does not give it an unfettered right to do what it pleases. If a government seeks to promote a policy which is opposed by the majority and which is seen as affecting them fundamentally, protest and even disruption to government function in extreme cases is legitimate.
Perhaps that is a valid point, but the article's main premise that expression of public opinion is one thing while illegally storming (by force) the parliament whenever a segment of the population isn't happy with a decision is far from being a democracy itself as well, is compelling. If the majority of the voters are not happy with the performance of a leader, they vote them out. If by saying that disruption to government functions is legitimate whenever a segment is unhappy, would you be willing to live in a society that functions like that?
"The students should realise democracy, which they claim to be protecting, thrives when it's deeply committed to respect and tolerance for different opinions."
Respect and tolerance is a basic foundation for civilized human interaction but democracy has nothing to do with it. Quite the opposite in fact as it gives 51% of the population the right to oppress the rest.
"In pressing their demands, the students insisted on a winner-take-all attitude."
Um, why complaining - they just acted like true democrats!
Democracy aside, the trade pact is not an equal, two~way reciprocal
deal; many business sectors in China not to mention banking, hospital,
media etc. remain closed to non~Chinese, pact or no pact. The fear
of such sectors being over~run by PRC companies many of which
are SOEs operating not on free~market principles is real.
@superron The temporary occupation of parliament had a very practical reason in this case: preventing the KMT-coalition of putting the trade pact law to a vote without proper parliamentary review. All they wanted, was for the Ma administration to take parliamentary due-dilligence and scrutiny of this very important pact seriously. The executive tried to rush the law through parliament, reducing the vote to the legislative rubber-stamping of a behind-closed door concocted pact. In this situation, the occupation of parliament was a sensible and entirely logical form of protest.
@honger I don't think you have the slightest understanding of what transpired in Taiwan in the past weeks. The protest movement did not oppose the trade pact ****. What they opposed was the KMT coalition using guerrilla tactics to get the pact voted through the legislative without the proper and customary review process. While they have a notional majority (52%) in parliament, public opinion was and is strongly against this flaunting of democratic principles and the trend of increasing executive overreach that lays behind it. So yes, it is safe to say that the student leaders of these protestesters represented a majority of the population, for what that is worth anyway. Democracy by the way, is not just about doing what the majority wants, but I will save that story for another time.


SCMP.com Account