Taipei police would have made Big Brother proud earlier this month when it acted on the government’s new “preemptive” policy and brought individuals in for questioning before they could have done anything.
By definition, preemptive action implies that the state has the ability to read people’s intentions and the authority, when necessary, to take action to prevent something bad from happening. Generally speaking, the intelligence branches of state organs are responsible for collecting information before a crime is committed, while law enforcement authorities normally act after the fact, with arrests made using evidence of a crime and supported by intelligence collected prior to the act.
Under certain circumstances, preemption by the state is relatively noncontroversial, such as when the authorities successfully use intelligence to prevent, say, an act of terrorism. Not only would policing action after the crime has been committed be costly, the public and families of the victims would have every reason to criticize the authorities for failing to prevent the atrocity. Nevertheless, preemption is always a challenge, as taking action is contingent on the state apparatus’ ability to collect and corroborate evidence that an individuals, group, or state has the intention and the capability to commit a crime, and that it would have committed it had it not been interrupted.
Needless to say, preemption by the state is not without controversy, especially when such extraordinary powers are used against actors whose purported crime does not threaten lives or state stability. It is even more problematic when it is applied against individuals who are engaged in peaceful resistance against the government.
According to reports in Chinese-language media, it is understood that a number of individuals were summoned for questioning after sharing posts on Facebook discussing plans for a “slow walk” at key intersections in Taipei — including Zhongxiao Dunhua, Zhongxiao Fuxing and Zhongxiao Xinsheng. The unusual police action occurred in the wake of the large protest against the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant that paralyzed Zhongxiao West Road for several hours late last month.
Besides confirming that law enforcement agencies are monitoring discussions on Facebook and other social media (three units under the KMT, the Executive Yuan, and the National Police Agency were created recently to do just that), the preemptive action raises serious questions about the state of affairs in Taiwan today. For one thing, it is debatable whether the “slow walk,” had it occurred, constituted serious enough a “crime” to warrant such policing measures. Furthermore, the mere act of posting, or even discussing, such plans on Facebook cannot in and of itself be construed as intent. In preemptive cases, the presumption of innocence which underpins this country’s legal system should figure even more prominently in policing decisions than in instances when a crime has already been committed (after all, we are talking about people’s thoughts here, not actions). Some of the individuals who were brought in for questioning claim they only shared the original post on their personal page, which hardly constitutes incitement. (Taipei has expanded the definition of incitement since the Sunflower Movement occupation of the legislature to now include citizen reporting and the posting of photos and video taken at protests, among other things.)
Above all, the preemptive action, taken against individuals who did not break the law and whose only “crime” was to share information about peaceful acts of resistance that may or may not even have taken place in the future, is of doubtful legality. Taken to an extreme, preemption risks turning a not uncontroversial, though in some instances necessary, law enforcement tool into an instrument of state intimidation, especially in this day and age when social media serves as the key platform for discussion and mobilization.
The thought police is alive and well across China, especially ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, as evidenced by the kidnap-style arrests of activists by security forces, presumably to deter any possible “wrongdoing” ahead of 6/4. Taiwan, which prides itself on its democratic achievements, must not go down that road.