by Brian Hioe

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Photo Credit: PTS News Network 

Recent Protest in Taiwan

ON SATURDAY, 60,000 Taiwanese took the streets across Taiwan in order to protest nuclear power. This was largely in Taiwan’s major metropolitan centers, Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Tainan. Taipei saw around 40,000, Kaohsiung 11,000, and Tainan 5,000. Smaller protests also took place in Taitung County and on the Penghu Islands, but the total amount of protestors is generally estimated to be between 40,000 and 60,000.

Though one of the largest annual anti-nuclear demonstrations in Asia, the protests were, overall, little reported on in international media. In fact, while such protests mark the anniversary of the 2011 Fukushima incident in Japan in Taiwan, it appears that Japan itself may have not seen demonstrations of the scale that they did in Taiwan. Yet the protests themselves, in fact, despite their enormity, represent something of a step down for the Taiwanese anti-nuclear movement.

Last year saw a high point for the Taiwanese anti-nuclear movement, with 200,000 protesting across Taiwan in 2014’s iteration of the yearly protests in Taiwan. April 27th also saw 50,000 in Taipei attempt to occupy Zhongxiao West Road in a protest that lasted until late night and only ended with the forcible police eviction of protestors using water cannons in the early morning hours of April 28th.

PhotoCredit-葉志明:蘋果日報Protestors last Saturday. A “5-6 Movement” banner is visible in the top left corner. Photo credit: 葉志明/蘋果日報

Namely, the building of controversial Gongliao Reactor #4, viewed as dangerous and unsafe relative to Taiwan’s other reactors because of its use of mixed parts from different manufacturers was a charged political issue in a Taiwan which feared that it might suffer its own Fukushima. After the government declared a “temporary halt” to the construction of Gongliao Reactor #4, the issue seemed less urgent. That, in part, explains the relative weakness of 2015’s anti-nuclear protest compared to last year. This year, for example, saw nothing as dramatic as the police assault that occurred on April 28th.

Nevertheless, in retrospect, we can also perceive the means by which the 2014 anti-nuclear movement bled into the explosion of the Sunflower Movement in late March of 2015. The annual anti-nuclear protest of 2014 predated the Sunflower Movement by several weeks and when 200,000 took to the streets across Taiwan, that was a foreshadowing of when 500,000 would take to the streets of Taiwan on March 30th, 2014 against government lack of democracy regarding the CSSTA free trade bill signed with China.

After the student withdrawal from the Legislative Yuan, it would be the hunger strike of anti-nuclear activist, former DPP chairman, and martyr of the 1980s Dangwai Movement, Lin Yi-Hsiung, that galvanized individuals onto the streets in protest. Lin Yi-Hsiung, whose mother and two 7 year old daughters, was killed by the KMT in 1970s in an act of political retribution, has been active in Taiwanese anti-nuclear politics after withdrawing from the DPP in 2006.

Though Lin’s anti-nuclear stances date back to when he was still a member of the DPP, Lin’s status as a political martyr was instrumental in mobilizing Taiwanese in April of 2014. During the period of Lin’s hunger strike, multiple protests were occurring nightly throughout Taipei and at its fever pitch, individuals were quite open in suggesting that, should Lin die during his hunger strike, violence would be on the table against the KMT government and its refusal to heed the democratic demands of the people, whether in regards to nuclear power or in regards to the CSSTA trade bill.

Where the anti-nuclear movement in Taiwan has a particular salience tied to the history of the democratization movement and the period of martial law by the KMT, it is on that basis that anti-nuclear activism has gone hand-in-hand with the KMT, which pushed for policies supporting nuclear power. This dates back to the late 1970s, when plans for the controversial Nuclear Reactor #4 were first drafted, though construction did not begin until some decades later. This in part is an explanation for why Taiwan’s long-standing anti-nuclear movement has its particular force, where it more broadly serves as a shell for the expression of pro-democracy politics. And where some have criticized Lin for, in some way, co-opting the aftermath of the Sunflower Movement into his anti-nuclear platform, acquaintances of Lin have suggested that he launched his hunger strike as a way in order to unify the disparate elements of Taiwanese civil society following the withdrawal of student occupiers from the Legislative Yuan and the period of fragmentation and disorientation that followed—even if this would be at the cost of his own health.

But where anti-nuclear politics seem less of a live issue, we have seen some withdrawal on the part of Taiwan’s anti-nuclear movement since last year. The weekly anti-nuclear protests of the “5-6 Movement,” have continued yearly for the last two years, not always drawing huge crowds in the absence of any political developments, but serving as a means of expressing anti-nuclear political views weekly. However, these protests ceased earlier this year following the 100th iteration, because of lack of manpower, despite protests continuing weekly amidst typhoons and the coldness of Taiwanese winter. Even as noted “5-6 Movement” activists as its leader and famed Taiwanese film director Ko I-Chen made appearances at protests this past Saturday, during which he took the opportunity to urge Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-Je to continue to refrain from joining the DPP, and even as a mobilization capacity of 40,000 to 60,000 remains quite impressive, this reflects the decline of the Taiwanese nuclear movement in the last year. It is also probably true that where a series of demonstrations are set to take place marking the one year anniversary of the Sunflower Movement, current anti-nuclear demonstrations are prematurely overshadowed where the anti-nuclear issue blends into the Sunflower Movement, so far as many Sunflower Movement participants themselves were against nuclear power and the Sunflower Movement encompassed issues including the anti-nuclear movement.

IMG_20140427_164416Sunset at the occupation of Zhongxiao West Road that took place in Taipei on April 27th. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Where last year’s set of anti-nuclear protests were a harbinger of the Sunflower Movement to come, the relative weakness of this year’s anti-nuclear protest will likely also be a harbinger of the set of demonstrations to mark the one year anniversary of the Sunflower Movement. It seems unlikely that demonstrations will be as large as last year, assuming contingent actions as another student occupation or the like does not happen.

In truth, the issue is far from settled. Like Japan, Taiwan’s geographic location renders it vulnerable to earthquake, typhoons, and other forms of natural disaster. Where many of the participants of last year’s anti-nuclear movement were against Nuclear Reactor #4 but not nuclear power itself, nuclear power remains a possible source of disaster for Taiwan along the lines of the Fukushima incident. And where the issue is yet to be settled, we might turn towards examining the Japanese context as counterpoint.

An Unresolved Crisis

I HAVE WRITTEN at length elsewhere comparing and contrasting the status of nuclear power in Taiwan and Japan, as well as the anti-nuclear movements of Taiwan and Japan, where I have lived in both countries and been a participant in both movements. Both countries share a number of similarities where nuclear power is concerned, in particular regarding the ability of the nuclear industry to influence the government to push for pro-nuclear policies in spite of strong public opposition. We can see similarities, too, in the willingness of both the Taiwanese and Japanese governments to cover up unethical practices regarding nuclear waste disposal or the leakage of nuclear materials.

But when we examine Japan, we can see the utter failure of the Japanese government to take responsibility for its mishandling of the Fukushima incident or to take the steps needed to prevent another Fukushima. Where the Fukushima Daiichi Reactor was run by Tepco, the Tokyo Electric Power Company that ran the Fukushima Daiichi reactors, laxness of Tepco safety policies was what led to the meltdown of three of the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors after the 2011 earthquake that led to over 16,000 deaths. Though Tepco would come under partial state management following the disaster and its president was forced to resign, Tepco executives have largely been able to avoid taking responsibility. In part, where politicians of the ruling LDP continue to advocate nuclear power despite that 70% of Japanese oppose nuclear power following Fukushima, we can point to the power of the nuclear energy industry and its ability to influence Japanese politicians.

JAPAN-TOKYO-DEMONSTRATION-ANTI-NUKEAnti-nuclear protestors in Tokyo outside the capitol on March 8th, 2015. Photo credit: Xinhua/Stringer

Nuclear reactors were taken offline in Japan following the Fukushima disaster but where the disaster led Japan to a period of mourning, the anti-nuclear movement grew in strength in 2012 when the Japanese government announced plans to restart anti-nuclear reactors. In July 2012, 150,000 gathered weekly in Tokyo for the largest set of protests Japan had seen since the 1960s, this growing out of a weekly set of protests that had taken place since 2011 not unlike the Taiwanese “5-6 Movement”. In spite of these protests, nuclear restarts happened anyway, another point at which entrenched corporate interests inveighed upon politicians to continue to advocate nuclear power in the face of public opposition.

While nuclear reactors would later go offline in fall of 2013 because of failure to meet safety standards, in the present, Japanese politicians continue to push for nuclear power. Neither has Tepco been punished. On the contrary, just last week, before the fourth year anniversary of Fukushima, Tepco was forced to admit that they had covered up nuclear waste leakage into the Pacific Ocean for over a year, despite knowing of the leak. The leakage not only would have affected Japanese fishermen, but their hauls, meaning radiation contamination which would affect the fish eaten by everyday Japanese.

This is hardly touches on the unspeakable human cost of the Fukushima disaster. 120,000 were displaced following the Fukushima disaster. Entire towns remain empty in Fukushima, despite government efforts to convince former residents to move back in with assurances of safety. The livelihoods of Fukushima former residents were, of course, destroyed by the disaster, with individuals unable to return to their homes and former workplaces, even when some had spent their entire lives in Fukushima. Even more poignant may be those who have chosen to return to Fukushima in spite of the health hazards. Matsumura Naoto, for example, nicknamed the “last man in Fukushima,” returned in order to take care of the abandoned livestock and pets left behind by fleeing owners.

To add insult to injury, the Japanese government appears set to build nuclear waste storage sites in the now abandoned towns and villages of Fukushima even as at the same time it has also undertaken attempts to lure tourists back to Fukushima with the promises of Fukushima’s natural beauty. During a recent trip to Japan, for example, while filling out the necessary paperwork for a railway pass at the airport, I was shocked to be approached by staff that sought to play up Fukushima as a tourist attraction.

PhotoCreditYoshikazu Tsuno:AFP:GettyWoman at a anti-nuclear protest on March 8th in Japan. Photo credit: Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty

Worst of all, children were among those most severely affected, with radiation leading to 117 cases of thyroid cancer of Fukushima children since 2011—above the average development of thyroid cancer among children. But now with the shift in Japan’s political climate, even this has become a taboo topic where fear of litigation from pro-nuclear interests has stifled discussion of the topic. As critics feared, Japan’s 2014 passage of the so-called Secrecy Law has become a means of silencing political dissent. Where filmmaker Ian Thomas Ash’s documentary, A2-B-C, which debuted in Taiwan to much positive responses from the Taiwanese anti-nuclear movement in 2014, was one of the first films to shed light on the effect of radiation upon Japanese children, all domestic screenings of the film in Japan have been cancelled for fear of retribution. A fine way to mark the four year anniversary of Fukushima, if there ever was one. Though protests this past year would draw thousands, as they do every year, we have not seen large protest on the scale of 2012.

An International Issue

WHERE WE CAN point to the unresolved nature of the Fukushima incident four years on in Japan, it is hard to imagine that a nuclear disaster in Taiwan would not see similar if not worse mishandling by the Taiwanese government. Similarly, even as the Taipower Company which manages nuclear power in Taiwan is directly state-owned, where Japan’s Tepco was originally privately owned, there are similarities in how the strength of pro-nuclear interests is capable of influencing politicians and overriding public opposition.

Where the situation in Taiwan is perhaps more hopeful, it is because Taiwan has not suffered nuclear disaster and Taiwan’s history of democratic struggle has vested it with a civil society that is quite willing to do battle with the government when needed. Indeed, to be frank, it is dismaying that, to my knowledge, Fukushima’s four year anniversary seems to have seen larger protest in Taiwan than from Japan despite Taiwan’s much smaller population and that Taiwan has had no nuclear disaster to date.  Though thousands would protest this past year in Tokyo and elsewhere, this does not appear to have been as large in Taiwan when it would have been more widely reported on had, say, tens of thousands taken to the streets. Even if Taiwan’s anti-nuclear movement has its particularities that originate with its connection to the struggle for democracy, nuclear energy is, after all, an issue which affects all those in the Asian-Pacific.

PhotoCredit-REUTERS:Issei KatoPhoto credit: Issei Kato/Reuters

Where mainland China now hopes to turn towards nuclear energy as a way around pollution from smog as the environmentally friendly alternative to coal, the issue may grow further complicated. In a period of rising tensions between Japan and China and in consideration of the fraught relationship between China and Taiwan, anti-nuclear activists hoping to work together will have to transcend the national enmities of their respective countries in aspiring towards a transnational politics. But for the sake of the region as a whole, perhaps Taiwan can draw a line in the sand where anti-nuclear politics is concerned.