by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: NowNews
IF RECENT COMMENTS by incoming DPP minister without portfolio Chang Ching-sen have drawn fire for their disdain of student protestors, perhaps this is a sign of what the DPP’s future attitudes towards Taiwan’s student protestors will be. During past election season, the Tsai campaign went out of its way to present the image that it was on the side of the youth and civil society activists which have taken center stage in the two years since the Sunflower Movement. Namely, youth activists have seized the public imagination, and Tsai rode to electoral victory on the wave of calls for political change in seeking to create the perception that she would be the one to bring about the political change called for by Taiwan’s young people.
But Chang’s comments are revealing about the possible future for relations between activists and members of the Tsai administration. Chang’s comments drew fire after he criticized student protestors for irrationality in regards to the demolition of the Wang family home in Shilin. The Wang home was demolished for commercial redevelopment after fierce resistance from the Wang family and their supporters. The Wang family had refused to leave after a commercial developer secured the approval of 95% of the tenants living on their block to move out for commercial redevelopment, meaning that the Wang family could be forcibly evicted and their house demolished. The Wang family struggle saw the family hold out an occupation site on the premise of their demolished home for close to three years after its demolition, though it eventually ended with settlement between the Wang family and developers.
The demolished Wang family home. Photo credit: Fang Pin-chao/Taipei Times
Chang’s comments was that student protestors were “pitiful” for their irrational actions, when the Wang family received five units of the newly built apartment complex worth over NT$100 million in compensation. Yet the Wang family case was emblematic of the struggle against rampant urban renewal and commercialism in Taiwan’s urban areas, by which commercial developers can often use the law to forcibly appropriate land for commercial development and drive off residents, and do so with the cooperation of local politicians or even in collusion with organized crime. Such issues of urban renewal and gentrification ties generally into Taiwan’s issues with crony capitalism in many sectors, inclusive of real estate, construction, and commercial development.
Some of the most heated moments of the Wang family struggle took place concurrent with the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan. Urban renewal was one of the principle issues of Taiwanese civil society activism before the Sunflower Movement, not only in Taiwan, but also regarding forcible land evictions in Dapu, Miaoli. Many of the student leaders of the Sunflower Movement first emerged to public prominence regarding their actions taken resisting forcible land evictions.
Apart from continuing the theme of Taiwanese politicians free to post at will on their Facebook posting uncensored comments which provoke public backlash, all too endemic to the age of social media, Chang’s comments reveal a technocratic bias. Picking up the preferred KMT criticisms of student protestors as irrational, Chang’s view would seem to be that such problems of urban renewal can settled be through money alone, or through technocratic public policy—hence the actions of civil society are irrational, futile, and pointless. This was largely the criticism made by Lin Fei-Fan, one of the student leaders of the Sunflower Movement.
Yet Chang’s worldview is probably indicative of what lines future division between the Tsai administration and Taiwanese activists will develop along. The Tsai government may try to address social issues through technocratic means of policy and activists will react against attempted solutions when they fail to address localized circumstances, are heavy-handed, or come off as high-handed and contemptuous—rather than genuinely seeking to understand issues, as student activists did in working with the Wang family.
Tsai Ing-Wen (Left) and Chang Ching-sen (Right). Photo credit: Taiwan Enews
Particularly with the Tsai campaign set to backtrack regarding issues such as cross-strait relations, food safety, or the environment, the “Hope and Change” brand of the Tsai campaign will probably not last. It may be, then, that we will return to a state in which civil society activists finds itself confronting both the DPP and KMT alike. This would not be altogether surprising.
With the Tsai campaign’s going out of its way to win the support of civil society activists, this was always embracing a political force which has made its presence increasingly heard in recent years, but which could also potentially turn on the Tsai campaign down the line. Probably Tsai’s appeals were useful for her campaign, but it is also true that Tsai may have gone out of her way to appeal to civil society when her administration cannot fulfill the expectations civil society has of her. And if so, the reaction down the line against Tsai by civil society may be all the more severe, particularly if the perception is that statements such as Chang’s are reflective of the true attitudes of the Tsai administration towards student demonstrators, not at all reflective of how they sought to present themselves during elections.
Yet if this is one of a string of moves by Tsai administration officials which has only alienated its support base in recent times, disillusionment would have occurred sooner or later. And it may be that disillusionment should occur sooner, rather than later.