by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: 過勞功德會/Facebook
WHILE ATTEMPTS by Taiwanese activists to block the Tsai administration’s planned changes to the Labor Standards Act may have failed, the movement against the changes will likely be thought of in the future as a significant social movement of Taiwanese civil society in the years following the Sunflower Movement. Namely, a sign of the “maturity” of any social movement in Taiwan, including the anti-media monopoly movement, the anti-nuclear movement, or protests against land evictions in Dapu, Miaoli, is the movement developing an iconic visual language of its own. Each of these major social movement upsurges in the years before the Sunflower Movement had a visual language all its own and this is no different of demonstrations against the Tsai administration’s changes to the Labor Standards Act, which have now passed. Of social movements which have broken out after the Sunflower Movement, demonstrations against labor law changes were probably the only social movement to reach this level of development.
In the case of demonstration against the Labor Standards Act, a large amount of artworks produced regarding the movement were Buddhist-themed. This was in mockery of Buddhist-tinged comments by Premier William Lai, who is seen by many as having a large degree of responsibility for the bill, claiming that while domestic workers may have low salaries, he hoped that the “karmic merit” of their good deeds (做功德) would make up for this. Such comments were outraging, seeing as this was seen as a poor justification for low salaries in Taiwan.
Buddhist-themed artworks began appearing in demonstrations against the Labor Standards Act following a Buddhist-themed protest against the changes outside the Executive Yuan on December 3rd last year, primarily organized by post-Sunflower Movement activist Aman Wu (吳濬彥). The protest verged on performance art, seeing as there were minimal speeches, and of the three hour protest, two and half hours of the protest seemed to consist of satirical Buddhist chants. The few speeches that occurred took place with nakasi-like musical accompaniment and participants in the chanting shaved their heads to resemble monks.
The popularity of Buddhist-themed artworks in protests afterwards was also likely influenced that the height of demonstrations against the Tsai administration’s planned changes coincided with two films emphatic of Taiwanese identity that were contenders for film awards as the Golden Horse used Buddhism and Taiwanese traditional religion more broadly as a metaphor for political corruption in Taiwan, perhaps as tied to the broader emphasis on Taiwanese identity in the past years of social movement upsurges or Taiwanese artistic production, these two films being The Great Buddha+ and The Bold, The Corrupt, and The Beautiful. As with previous labor protests, ghost money was used during demonstrations as a means of mocking corporate greed, whether this was through demonstrators throwing ghost money at government buildings or burning ghost money in front of government buildings. However, there was also the additional element of Buddhist talismans being attached to buildings or police barriers.
As with past protest art in Taiwan in Taiwan that focused on political leaders viewed as responsible for unpopularly policy, such as the great amount of focus on depictions of Ma Ying-Jeou in protest artwork produced during the Sunflower Movement, much protest artwork in particular honed in on President Tsai Ing-Wen and Premier William Lai. In particular, after a series of slides produced by the highly respected investigative reporting outlet The Reporter calling out Tsai for hypocrisy regarding the labor bill used a Pinocchio image for Tsai, this image became highly popular in protests. One observes that depictions of Tsai within protests subsequently generally depicted Tsai as uncaring or hypocritical, whereas depictions of Lai were often Buddhist-themed.
Tsai in particular was mocked for posting an image of her cat to celebrate Christmas during protests in which protesters were being violently beaten by police. On the other hand, mockery of Lai also honed in on his past nickname of “God Lai” (賴神) for example, in the satirical Facebook event satirizing that the height of labor protests coincided with finals for many students entitled “Wenchang Wang versus God Lai” (文昌帝君 VS 清德老君), Wenchang Wang being the god of literature and culture in Chinese traditional religion who is generally seen as the god of scholarly pursuits and academics.
Sticker campaign mocking William Lai’s comments. Photo credit: 反教育商品化聯盟/Facebook
As with past movements, riffing off of the gaffes of government politicians proved popular. Demonstrators also launched a sticker campaign changing references to the “Executive Yuan” (行政院) to say “Merit Yuan” (功德院), reminiscent of other sticker campaigns in recent years. After DPP legislator Chiu Yi-ying insisted during a Legislative Yuan committee meeting that labor demonstrators were not so large in number, but were playing a recording to seem larger, a number of tape recording-themed artwork appeared in the movement.
Several examples of artwork mocking Chiu Yi-ying. Photo credit: 陳姓香客/Giovanni Bosco/過勞功德會/Facebook
Much mockery also later ensued regarding the disproportionate actions of the Tsai administration to crackdown on protests against labor law changes. Among other measures, the Tsai administration set up razor wire barriers enforced by riot police in the half kilometer around the Presidential Office, which was dubbed by Taiwanese media to be “the largest restricted area in Taiwanese history” (史上最大禁制區).
It was later pointed out that this restricted area was the size of the old Taipei city limits during the Qing dynasty, which remains in the form of how the old city gates of Beimen, Ximen, Nanmen, and Dongmen are now subway stations, and survives in the Old North Gate and rebuilt South Gate and Auxiliary South Gate. As a result, this led to a great deal of artwork being produced around the themes of the “New” Taipei city, consisting only of the restricted area.
Comic satirizing Tsai and the DPP as “left-wing.” Photo credit: 電子妹疙瘩海參抓/Facebook
Moreover, given the sudden focus among Taiwanese youth activists upon civil society, a great deal of satirically Marxist, Soviet, or Maoist themed artworks was also among the features of protest artwork which sprung up in demonstrations. After Tsai Ing-Wen claimed to DPP party workers who had entered the DPP after the Sunflower Movement but were in an uproar about planned labor law changes that she was “quite left-wing,” (很左派) satirical artwork depicting Tsai as a Marxist political leader in the manner of the Russian Revolution appeared on the Internet.
Similar artwork appeared after Taipei city councillor Liang Wen-Chieh of the DPP made a post on Facebook dismissing labor demonstrators with the claim that he had read Marx’s Das Kapital three times, mocking Liang for stating this but clearly having understood little of Marx , including a satirical Facebook page entitled, “I Support Liang Wen-Chieh Reading Das Kapital A Fourth Time”. Such rhetoric was carried over to an online campaign calling on overseas Taiwanese to demonstrate against the labor law, titled “Overwork International” (功德國際), which called on the workers of the world to unite, and to stand with workers in Taiwan.
Tsai Ing-Wen sculpture brought out during protests, which would play music when struck. Film credit: 不來梅創意/Facebook
Through the thematic coherence of various themes in protest artwork against planned changes to the Labor Standards Act, then, can one see the expansiveness and depth of the movement at its peak. Nevertheless, such demonstrations have received little attention from the media, which may not be too surprising. It remains, then, to see as to how the scope of the movement might expand.