Asia Watches as Taiwan's Democracy Falters

Student protests in one of Asia’s most stable democracies are facing violent police crackdown. The effects could echo throughout the region.
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Protesters gather in downtown Taipei. (Photo: ElbertCheng/Flickr)

Protesters gather in downtown Taipei. (Photo: ElbertCheng/Flickr)

Thousands of protesters in Taiwan have been occupying the country's legislature for a week now, demanding that the ruling party retracts a trade deal with China, which they say was negotiated behind closed doors and pushed through the legislature.

The situation escalated on Sunday when a few hundred protesters broke into another government building and were forcibly removed by riot police with water cannons, wooden clubs, and tear gas. Reports put the number of people injured around 150, in addition to about 60 arrests.

"The conservatives on that side of the debate point at Taiwan and say, 'Democracy means chaos. Even students are occupying the legislature. If you have too much democracy, things will break down.'"

The movement, known as the Sunflower Revolution (named after its intent to provide sunlight and transparency), is composed of mostly college students, along with some civil activists and professors, among others. They claim the ruling party has side-stepped legislative processes and is ignoring the people’s desire to stay out of the trade pact with China. Taiwan president Ma Ying-jeou and his party say the agreement will improve the economy, provide more jobs, and ensure Taiwan does not fall behind regional trade competitors like South Korea.

While the domestic debate has been about executive abuse of power and China-Taiwan relations, political experts think there is much more at stake for democracy in the region.

“Taiwan is looked to among the Chinese-speaking world as the place where democracy is in action,” says Kharis Templeman, program manager for the Taiwan Democracy Project at Stanford University.

Despite being a young democracy, Taiwan’s is one of the strongest in the region. “It has freedom of speech and assembly, elections are vibrant and competitive, it has gone through two changes of ruling parties through elections, and it’s enjoyed a very peaceful democratization,” says Dafydd Fell, deputy director of the Centre of Taiwan Studies at University of London. “The most important asset in Taiwan’s international diplomacy or ‘soft power’ is its democracy.”

This status means that political events in Taiwan are watched closely by neighboring countries. “In Hong Kong now, especially, there’s a big debate about whether or not Hong Kong is ready for direct elections and full democracy," Templeman says. "The conservatives on that side of the debate point at Taiwan and say: ‘Democracy means chaos. Even students are occupying the legislature. If you have too much democracy, things will break down.’”

On social media, support for the protesters has come from around the world, especially Hong Kong. But while Fell says that Hong Kong has much admiration for Taiwan’s achievements in democratization, he doesn’t see the Taiwanese protests as a spark for regional protests à la the Arab Spring.

The protests have special significance to observers in mainland China, where reaction has been mixed. Others in Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, and even Turkey are likely keeping an eye on Taiwan, as well.

“Thailand just had a coup,” Templeman says. “The middle- and upper-classmen are using language that is strikingly non-democratic. And in Turkey, the prime minister has cleared people from the judiciary and military. It’s looking increasingly autocratic.”

Entangled in Taiwan’s democratic crisis is the looming specter of Chinese political and economic control. “Signing a trade deal with China is quite different from Singapore or New Zealand," Fell says. "China does not disguise the fact that it uses economic measures to promote unification.”

Many Taiwanese take pride in their democratic government, seeing it as a way to distinguish themselves from their mainland counterparts. But as fighting over the fate of the China trade pact continues, and photos of young protesters bloodied by riot police are shared across the Internet, the rose-colored appeal of Taiwan’s democracy begins to fade away.

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