By J. Michael Cole
With some half-a-million people joining the Sunflower Student Movement protest on Ketagalan Blvd and around the Legislative Yuan on Sunday, the question on everybody’s mind was how President Ma Ying-jeou, barricaded inside the Presidential Office, could possibly extricate himself out of the mess he’s created for himself.
It’s not like Ma and his advisers haven’t had time to see this coming. After all, the student-led campaign against the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) at the center of the crisis had gone on for several months already when a few hundred students climbed the walls around the LY on that fateful evening of March 18. For months, as academics, NGOs, business groups and students alerted the public to the pact’s possible nefarious consequences to Taiwan’s economy and liberties, the Ma administration responded with indifference, then contempt, and finally police shields, batons, and court summons.
What Ma didn’t seem to understand was that the group wouldn’t go away. With years of activism against other contentious issues yielding the same result — an unyielding state apparatus — the activists slowly developed an “architecture of protest” that by March 18 had become capable of defying the state itself. And it did that without the help of a disorganized Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that, not unlike mainstream media, never understood the tremendous potential, talent, and dedication of the young individuals who were fighting for change.
The remarkable thing about the constellation of groups that eventually coalesced into the Sunflower Movement was its heterogeneous nature, which greatly increased its appeal and effectiveness. Gone was the so-called “ethnic” divide that sadly continues to polarize politics in this country. Instead, what united them was a civic nationalism firmly anchored in an ideology of liberty, democracy, and sense of belonging to this land. Perhaps nothing epitomized this generational shift more bluntly than images of Lin Fei-fan, one of the leaders of the Sunflower Movement, getting into trouble with the authorities in April 2013 while fighting against the forced demolition of the Huaguang Community in Taipei. Lin, the young Taiwanese from Tainan, was sacrificing his studies and his health on behalf of a community of elderly “mainlanders” who all their lives had voted for the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Some of them even had shrines to Chiang Kai-shek inside their little homes. And yet, the young ones fought (and lost; Huaguang is no more, to be replaced by a glitzy shopping complex).
Over time, the youth movement was joined by about 1,000 lawyers and academics, many of them veterans of the Wild Lily Movement in the 1990s. Young, old, “mainlander” or Hakka or Taiwanese, “green” or “blue,” they all fought, fighting the elements and a state apparatus that was becoming ever more authoritarian in its means.
So the CSSTA, an ill-understood pact negotiated in secret and improperly reviewed, which many of its critics fear could have far-reaching consequences for this nation’s way of life, became the catalyst, the rallying point for those who have had enough of unresponsive governance, of a deadlocked legislature, and of a system that is increasingly seen as subservient to a narrow sector of society. The events of the past twelve days were sparked by the trade pact, but the anger runs much deeper, and the history of that discontent goes back in several years.
President Ma, whose approval numbers have been frozen in the single-digits for months, now faces the greatest challenge of his political career. His opponents no longer fit easily in traditional boxes; they come from everywhere, they are rich, poor, students, parents, and DNA has nothing to do with it. Moreover, many of them are KMT voters. Old divide-and-conquer tactics will therefore not work. His detractors cannot be bought, and they have made it clear that they will not go away.
Despite an intense propaganda campaign, Ma has lost the war for hearts and minds. The future of the CSSTA is now highly uncertain, and probably has sealed the fate for any future agreements with China between now and 2016, when President Ma must step down. Continued intransigence on the president’s part will only fuel anger with his administration. Although force remains an option to clear out the legislature, doing so in the wake of the violence-marred policing action during the occupation of the Executive Yuan on March 23-24 would be suicidal.
His only option, therefore, is to back down and meet the movements’ demands. The longer he refuses to do so, the greater the damage to the KMT’s image. We might soon reach a point where members of Ma’s party, looking to the seven-in-one elections later this year and the presidential/legislative elections in 2016, decide that Ma must go, that his remaining as party chairman with a firm grip on the party line could cost them future elections. Perhaps Ma himself, despite his formation under authoritarianism, understands this. If he doesn’t, there are those in his party who do, and if he is perceived as a liability, they might do as the wolves and turn on the injured alpha.
It would probably be a mistake for the movement to shift from its original demands regarding the CSSTA and future pacts with China by agitating for Ma’s removal. Such demands would likely backfire and make it easier for their detractors, who already argue (wrongly) that the occupation of the LY is undemocratic, to discredit them. By simply staying the course, which seems to be their strategy, the movement can ensure that pressure within the KMT will become such that Ma will have no choice but to yield to the demands or society or he will be forced out by his own people.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate Researcher at the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC).
By J. Michael Cole