2013, Taipei’s Year of Street Protests

Compared to other years, 2013 appears to be an extraordinary year for public activism and protests,  with the biggest street marches inspired less by party political issues, and more by economic, social, environmental, and national concerns. Here are some of the top street protests of 2013.

By Stuart Hill

If public protest is a reflection on the nature of a country’s democratic foundations, then in 2013 Taiwan certainly had its credentials on display.

Protests covered the full gamut of issues ranging from Anti-Nuclear, Family Values, Government Transparency and Military Justice, while less popular yet equally valid issues, emerged in what seemed like a weekly march on the capital.

Taxi drivers on routes in and around the Presidential Building spent the year on weekend detours; the only thing missing this year was a Protest Against Disrupting Traffic march.

Taken as a whole, dissatisfaction with various levels of government and business — both at the national and local level — appeared as a major theme, while the handling of several specific issues moved enough people onto the streets in an effort to make themselves heard. An unusual feature of many of the protests was the composition of the participants; in 2013 many appeared to come from all political parties, socio-economic backgrounds, industry groups, and ages.

Big Taipei Fury

Big Fire, Big Fury. 2013 started of with a protest lead by opposition leaders, galvanized around a number of issues including media interference from China, poor economic performance, and land appropriation. (Photo from the straitstimes.com)

Here is a list of some of the key protests in 2013, and it is by no means an exhaustive one.

JANUARY:  CHINA’S DOMINANCE OF TRADE

Protesting farmers

Rural Existence. Concerned over declining standards of living, farmers protested against government plans to remove protection against Chinese food imports as part of Taiwan’s trade agreement with China. (Photo from viacampesina.org)

2013 started off with a post-fireworks bang with two protests following a similar thread: the growing influence of China on Taiwan’s economy and way of life.

Tens of thousands of people protested over the growing influence of pro-China business on the media industry in Taiwan, specifically the head of the Want Want group, which owns TV and newspaper interests.

Later in the month, thousands of farmers protested over a threat to their livelihoods. The Taiwan government’s plans to expose the agricultural sector to further competition with China, by lifting a ban on 830 rural products, was claimed to add further pressure on farm incomes and shift Taiwan to further dependence on imports — and in this case Chinese imports — for its main food supplies.

The protest occurred in the context of growing fears over the approach the government was taking in its negotiations with China over cross-strait trade, seen as secretive, favorable to China, and only benefiting a small group of large-scale Taiwan businesses. Management of the economy, and the lack of any obvious benefits of the government’s ECFA deal, were also major issues of contention.

MARCH: ANTI NUCLEAR

No Nuclear 4 Power Station. One of the longest running environmental concerns of Taiwan residents, and one of the biggest protests of the 2013.

No Nuclear 4 Power Station. One of the longest running environmental concerns of Taiwan residents, and one of the biggest protests of 2013. (Photo from hindustantimes.com)

While the majority of Taiwan’s power is currently generated by three nuclear power stations, in the context of new safety concerns after Japan’s serious nuclear accident in Fukushima, Taiwanese hit the streets on the second anniversary of the Japan disaster, calling for an end to construction of a 4th Nuclear Power Station.

“Nuke 4” has been a political hot potato for many years, with both DPP and KMT governments being pressured to end construction. Various government arguments about meeting future energy demand, “energy independence” and honoring existing contracts for completion of the project (as well as the huge cost spent on the plant to date) among many other explanations, have kept the project going.

Like Japan, Taiwan is extremely vulnerable to both earthquakes and typhoons. With its close proximity to both the sea and large populations of people, a Fukushima-style disaster scenario doesn’t seem too far-fetched. In any case, tens of thousands of people expressed their concerns over safety and the need for reduced reliance on nuclear energy.

MAY: TERRITORIAL INTEGRITY

Anti-Philippines Anger. Tinged with various racist and nationalist overtones from both sides, anti-Philippines protests were triggered by the gunning down of a Taiwan fisherman by Philippines coast guards. Here fishermen throw eggs at the Philippines trade office. (Photo from the Straits Times)

Anti-Philippines Anger. Tinged with various racist and nationalist overtones from both sides, anti-Philippines protests were triggered by the gunning down of a Taiwan fisherman by Philippines coast guards. Here fishermen throw eggs at the Philippines trade office. (Photo from the Straits Times)

A Taiwanese fisherman was shot and killed by a Philippine coast guard under suspicious circumstances. Was he in Philippine waters? Why was he shot at so many times?

Understandably, the man’s family and other Taiwanese fishermen wanted an explanation, which was neither forthcoming from the Philippine government, nor from the Taiwanese government who should have been lobbying on their behalf. Yes, the president demanded a response, imposing a foolish deadline that would only make his words appear hollow when the Philippines side didn’t meet it.

Protestors pelted eggs at the Philippine’s trade office, but the government’s failure to protect the nation’s dignity and manifest a “satisfactory response” didn’t help the Taiwan president with his popularity ratings.

JULY-AUGUST: MILITARY INJUSTICE

Eyes on Government. Protesters call for more transparency from the military following the suspicious death of a man serving compulsary service dies from heat exhaustion during punishment.

Eyes on Government. Protesters call for more transparency from the military following the suspicious death of a man serving compulsory service dies from heat exhaustion during punishment. (Photo from smh.com)

Approximately three days before completing his compulsory military service, Hung Chung-chiu died from heat stroke following days of being subjected to solitary confinement and excessive exercise as a punishment for “bringing a smart phone onto the base”.

The death was most likely accidental, though the direct result of various standard forms of military punishment (ie brutality) that was inflicted on him during very hot weather. The serviceman was sent to hospital for dehydration, but it didn’t save him.

After his death, missing surveillance footage for the time Hung was being held, suspicions over his expedited release from hospital, conflicting reports from doctors about the cause of death, and the belief that Hung was punished for protesting against the behavior of his superiors, were enough to drive over 100,000 people from all walks of live to the streets. Protestors sung “Do You Hear the People Sing” in response to the injustice of the case.

SEPTEMBER: PRESIDENTIAL INCOMPETENCE, GOVERNMENT INDIFFERENCE

Fleeing from the People. Protesters wearing the effigy of Ma Ying-jeou mock the Taiwan president for running away from the people. Ma is famous for jogging.

Fleeing from the People. Protesters wearing masks of Ma Ying-jeou mock the Taiwan president for running away from the people. Ma is famous for jogging.

Supposed to be held on the day of the KMT’s national congress, a multitude of complaints directed at Taiwan President Ma Ying-Jeou saw people throwing shoes at his effigy, mocking his cowardice for postponing the congress date, and signing petitions for him to resign. Meanwhile others called on Ma as the Chairman of the KMT to stop his personal campaign against KMT legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng.

The KMT national congress, at which Ma Ying-jeou was expected to be returned as party leader, was subsequently delayed and moved to another location due to safety concerns.

The mood against the Ma government seemed unsurprising considering recent events, not just because of the nasty handling of the Wang Jin-pyng affair, but also following the death of a man from the DaPu village, after dubious land appropriation policies by the Miaoli local government razed several properties in the region.

OCTOBER: TRADE WITH CHINA, POLITICAL INFIGHTING, MARRIAGE EQUALITY

Taiwan protest shoes

Weapons of Mass Discontent. Thousands of shoes were donated around Taiwan to throw at President Ma. As a result of the constant and growing threat of being hit, Taiwan police began using large nets to catch flying shoes and prevent the president from suffering injury. (Photo from wikipedia.org)

October 10 is supposed to be a day of national celebration, but in 2013 people held protests over the government’s handling of a number of sensitive issues, including secret trade agreements with China, infighting within the KMT, the 4th nuclear power plant, and (again) the handling of the investigation and subsequent findings of the inquiring into the death of military conscript Hung Chung-chiu.

The issue of political infighting appeared especially ugly, as it was revealed that President Ma Ying-jeou was receiving briefings by the head of the government’s “special intelligence division” acquired through illegal phone tapping.

Information that Ma had received from SID was used as the basis for his call for the removal of the legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng from the KMT and thus the speaker’s position. It wasn’t hard to connect the idea that SID was being used as a personal political tool. Despite his claims to the contrary, the legality of using SID’s evidence wasn’t a very strong moral position for the supposedly upright Ma to maintain. That the head of SID was also bugging the entire parliament and suspected of targeting Ma’s enemies didn’t make the case seem any cleaner.

Meanwhile, in their annual Pride Parade, Taipei’s LGBT community marched for a range of liberties including marriage equality. The issue was of particular concern as amendments to the marriage act were close to parliamentary review. The community was pushing for changes to the law, to remove “man” and “women” as defining the parties involved in marriage.

NOVEMBER: FAMILY FRIENDLY PROTEST?

Defining the Family. Another huge rally in Taipei, demanded proposed changes to Taiwan's marriage act and adultery laws be dropped. Otherwise the nation risked "chaos".

Defining the Family. Another huge rally in Taipei, demanded proposed changes to Taiwan’s marriage act and adultery laws be dropped. Otherwise the nation risked “chaos”.

With placards supporting children “Made by Daddy & Mommy”, the “family values” protest was against changes to two forms of legislation currently before Taiwan’s parliament. The first would redefine families with its current emphasis on marriage between a man and a woman to a marriage between two parties, thus providing the opportunity for same-sex couples to be married. This would also open the way for gay relationships to have the rights to inherit, adopt, and benefit from other laws that couples of the opposite sex currently enjoy.

The second change in the law related to the law of adultery, which by implementation rather than by design, currently benefits men over women in the majority of cases. Statistically, a large number of men file for divorce on the grounds that an affair is indicative of a women’s inability to raise children, and are thus able to take the kids with them.

Marriage Equality. In opposition to protests against changes to the marriage and adultery laws, pro-marriage equality groups also made their voices heard

Marriage Equality. In support of changes to the marriage and adultery laws, pro marriage equality groups also made their voices heard, despite being harassed by Christians. (Photo from malaysianinsider.com)

Changes to both laws were said to deliver social chaos and a collapse of the traditional family unit. Changing the law would end Taiwan’s future, so the organizers of the protest said. Christians were seen surrounding gays by holding hands and praying for salvation. A young man made a quick name for himself dressed as a Nazi, claiming Hitler did a good job at dealing with homosexuals.

What a year!

Other Protests in 2013:

  • Justice for Taiwanese comfort women during the Second World War
  • Anti land appropriation in TaoYuan relating to the Aerotropolis
  • Opposition to water diversion, which would affect farmers
  • The razing of old KMT villages in downtown Taipei
  • The appropriation of land in MiaoLi
  • The razing of the Wang family’s property in ShiLin
  • Workers protesting against poor labor conditions and government economic policies favoring the rich

Even Taiwanese pop group May Day had something to say:

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