Last weekend saw violent altercations taking place at the National Taiwan University in Taipei during the recording of a Chinese TV talent show. On the face of it, it might seem unsurprising that an event with such close ties to China being held on a Taiwanese University campus would lead to clashes between pro-unification and pro-independence factions. But there is more to this incident than meets the eye?
The clashes saw members of the so-called China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP) savagely attack students who were peacefully protesting the event, primarily because of the damage it had caused to their sports field. Some were also angry that tickets to the event had renamed the National Taiwan University as Taipei Municipal Taiwan University and also the impact the event was having on their learning environment.
Concerns about the event had been raised early, with the university itself initially refusing to host it and various departments openly questioning the wisdom of holding such an event during term-time. That it was approved anyway has to lead to some serious questions being asked. The excellent J. Michael Cole has written at length about the issue and portrays a rather sinister series of events in which the Chinese Communist Party has conspired to orchestrate this incident for its own long term political aims.
Certainly, a reading of the schedule of events that the university themselves have outlined could be seen as backing this up. They show how the promoters of the event constantly changed their requests to both the university and the city government. After initially requesting access to the site for 5 and a half days, they dropped this to 4 and a half after concerns over the impact on students and neighbors were raised. However, this request was then suddenly raised to 6 and a half days less than two weeks before the event.
The university has also indicated that pressure was put on them from the Taipei City Government to agree to host the event. Despite concerns over the impact on student learning and university administrators questioning the event on security grounds, the head of sports at the university returned from leave just ahead of the event and swiftly gave it his approval. The university has since confirmed that the event caused over NT$80,000 of damage to the sports field in question as well as disrupting university life for a week beforehand.
NTU students protesting the concert. (CNA image)
Why did the university eventually agree to host the event? Why did the Head of Sports at the university so readily agree? And why were some in the Taipei City Government so keen for it to go ahead? These are all questions that are yet to be satisfactorily answered, although the university is investigating the circumstances and has pledged to punish individuals found to be negligent.
Then there is the role of the police. Officers reportedly took 40 minutes to arrive at the scene, despite the nearest police station being just 2 km away. Usually the National Taiwan University in Taipei would be responsible for the security and policing of its own campus, which might offer some sort of excuse for the slow response. But, in light of security concerns that had previously been raised around the event, and the many calls to police that were made, it seems remarkable that they took so long to respond.
According to Taipei Police Department Deputy Commissioner Lin Shun-chia, "Some of our police officers failed to respond promptly and appropriately after dozens of emergency calls made to us.” Whilst some officers have apparently been disciplined, the question of why they failed to respond faster still remains unanswered.
But perhaps most troubling of all is the role of Chinese unification parties in the violence. Video-evidence shows them wielding baseball bats and extendable batons which eye-witnesses say they had prepared and concealed. This alone makes a mockery of their subsequent claims that they only acted in self-defence.
Links between the CUPP and promoters of this event have been taken by some to suggest that everything was pre-planned. In his article, J. Michael Cole draws a picture of China seeking to deliberately cause unrest in Taiwan, as a possible precursor to military intervention. On the face of it, this seems to make sense, especially given the timing of this event, in the run up to the Communist Party of China’s People’s Congress.
But the CUPP is a violent group led by violent people. It is not beyond the stretch of imagination that they would carry weapons as a matter of course, nor that they would be happy to use them against those who disagree with them. They are certainly more comfortable doing this to make their political points than trying to engage in debate or discourse. And why wouldn’t they? They are beholden to a political organization which uses fear, threats, and violence rather than political persuasion to keep hold of power in China. Why would they approach Taiwan any differently?
The idea that this whole incident was a pre-planned conspiracy is a bit far-fetched for me. Certainly, there could well be an element of pro-unification individuals within either Taipei City Government, the university, and the police which influenced their actions. But the sequence of events put forward by the university suggests that bureaucratic bungling and indecision was the primary factor. This is a problem that affects many aspects of Taiwanese public policy and at the moment there is not sufficient evidence to assume any different here.
It is right that the CUPP is going to have its finances looked at as a result of this incident. No political party should be allowed to take funds from an overseas political party to try and influence Taiwanese domestic politics. Groups and individuals that do should face strong penalties and the same should be true for the media, infrastructure groups, and various other bodies.
It is also right that the Taipei City government, the university, and the police are all investigating their actions. Although such public sector self-investigations are unlikely to see any real blame being pinned or changes being made to stop incidents like this happen again. A full independent investigation would be better.
J Michael Cole concludes by warning against any violent response to this incident by pro-independence groups. He is right. Both pro-independence and pro-unification groups must be allowed to peacefully voice their opinions in public, but any violence should be strongly clamped down on. Taiwanese democracy enshrines the right to free speech and this apples to everyone, whether you agree with them or not. This after all is one of the many things which makes Taiwan a better place to live than Communist China.