Sunday, March 30, 2014

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Taiwan's Sunflower Movement: What is the end game?

3/30/2014 Taiwan Explorer
I'm sitting in my apartment just a few kilometers away from Taiwan's occupied Legislative Yuan. I can see the Shin Kong Life Tower from my window, it always felt very far away, but these days it feels very close. The occupied Legislative Yuan is right around there, so is the Office of the President and the Executive Yuan, the 3 government institutions, that play a key role in Taiwan's Sunflower Student Movement, that has become the most talked about event in the country since March 18th. All eyes and cameras are directed towards the students right now, and even foreign media has discovered this (for a democracy) very unusual situation. I didn't write anything on my blog so far, because I was too busy reporting on the developments on my Facebook page and Twitter. So many things happened so fast in the first few days, it was a roller coaster of emotions, being able to jot down my thoughts in my usual manner was not possible. I'm not sure I will succeed here, but I want to try.

I find Twitter and Facebook perfect for short frequent updates, you can reach a lot of people and get a lot of instant feedback, but the attention span of the recipients is much shorter than of those who read my blog. Writing this post is difficult, because I don't know what I really want to say, I didn't draft anything coherent in my mind before I started to write. One thing is sure right now: We're nearly two weeks into the protest, and I am very concerned. I've been closely following the crisis in Ukraine since the beginning, and I'm seeing some frightening parallels with Taiwan. And not only long term parallels, but also short term. I'm seeing a pretext of a new Maidan here in Taipei. And that's a very scary thought. Maidan was brutal and bloody, it was perhaps necessary, or at least unavoidable (only history will tell), but it left Ukraine weak, almost in shambles. Do we want something like this here in Taipei? I definitely don't.

As much as I sympathize with the Sunflower Movement, and the notion of defending Taiwan's democracy and sovereignty for the current and future generations, I'm getting more and more pessimistic regarding the occupation of the Legislative Yuan as yet another day goes by without a solution. The two opposing sides (the government and the protesters) are getting more and more radical every day. Social media is going crazy right now, lots of new accounts backing the movement have appeared out of nowhere, instantly gaining an enormous amount of followers, some of them trying to radicalize the situation by playing on emotion - it's already going too far. Taiwan's President Ma and Premier Jiang have also escalated the situation by extensive use of riot police on March 23, when some protesters tried to storm the Executive Yuan. While clearing the government building was justifiable, the use of water canons and batons outside on the streets was unnecessary and counterproductive, and I believe a big strategic mistake by the government. It delivered a lot of propaganda material to those on the movement's side that are trying to escalate the situation, but also tipped the public opinion strongly against the services pact with China, despite the continuous effort of the pro-government leaning media to smear the protesters as "violent" and "unknowing". We're now in a kind of a stalemate situation, no side is backing off from their point of view, it's very tense and slowly reaching the boiling point. With today's protest in sight, where people from all over Taiwan are expected to gather in Taipei, things might turn violent pretty quickly. I strongly hope not, but I'm very concerned. And now that the cat is out of the bag, and by that I mean the use of police force, it will not take as long as before to unleash policemen on the protesters, because the psychological barrier is already broken.

What is the end game here? How long can we all afford to have the legislative branch crippled, and the country deeply split, and politically unstable? How long before the economy is affected, and China decides to openly meddle into Taiwan's affairs? All these questions occupy my mind these days, and I haven't found any answers. I have a small child, a wife, and a job that depends on political and economic stability in the region. I love Taiwan, I have much understanding of what's going on, but this is not my fight. I won't join any protest (and as a foreigner that has its own risks), I'm just observing, reporting to the outside world, sharing my thoughts, and trying to comprehend everything as best as possible. But in all that's going on right now my family is for me the top priority, I will do everything and anything to make sure they are safe and sound, and if necessary return to Europe. Eventually the students will have to leave the legislature, and let the currently elected representatives solve this problem through political means, the longer the occupation goes on, the more difficult it will be to come up with better alternative solutions. As harmful as this services pact might be for Taiwan's future, there has to be a limit of how far the students' movement can go, there has to be an exit strategy for the current status quo. This occupation is already leaving a precedent for all future conflicts of a similar kind, and if one day the opposition is blue and does a similar thing, can those who are now in the the Legislative Yuan, and might be Taiwan's future leaders, say anything against it? This reality has to slowly sink in, the sooner it does, the better. We will have municipal elections in November, and two years later people will have the chance to elect a new president. If the current passion for change is real and has a nation-wide support, we will get that change very soon through democratic means, and every for Taiwan disadvantageous bilateral trade pact can be swiftly amended, or completely removed by the new administration. What Taiwan doesn't need is a deeper political crisis with wider implications. A piece of legislature can be changed pretty fast, a reform can be implemented very quickly, too, but a broken democracy and a hurting economy will need much longer to recover. This whole paragraph is directed to both sides of the conflict.