President Ma’s ‘Black Box’ ProblemOpposition to the government and the KMT is not driven by antipathy toward China, but rather by disgust with the government’s lack of respect for the people
The Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) government is once again facing off against a group of young protesters who oppose the government’s policies and procedures. The current protest is directed at the government’s efforts to change the content of history textbooks. This is another in a long series of protests that addressed a wide range of issues including property rights, freedom of the press, labor rights, environmental issues, and most famously opposition to the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) that led to the Sunflower occupation of Taiwan’s legislature last year.
The young protesters in Taiwan are frequently described as being “anti-China” and driven by their strong sense of Taiwanese identity. This is partially accurate. The young people in Taiwan are definitely strongly Taiwanese identified, but they are not necessarily “anti-China.” To understand these protests it is essential to understand that the young are strongly democratic. They were born into and fully believe in democracy in their country. Thus, it is not surprising that one thing that the protests have in common is anger over the government’s lack of transparency and respect for democratic procedure. It is therefore more accurate to describe the students as “pro-democracy” or “anti-authoritarian” than “anti-China.” It is also important to note that a significant percentage of the population in Taiwan supports the student protesters.
Since Ma took office in 2008, his administration has demonstrated neither a strong interest nor any level of competence in managing domestic politics. Ma’s government has been insular and arrogant, frequently responding to criticisms with a condescending attitude. Decisions are made behind closed doors with little if any effort to consider the preferences of the voters. The decisions are then foisted upon the people with the message that the government knows best and the people must agree.
It is not surprising, then, that the young protesters have consistently criticized the government for its “black box” decision-making procedures. For example, in an April 2014 interview, Wei Yang (魏揚), a leader of the Sunflower movement stated, “The government and the civil society had no communication. There were no comprehensive impact assessments. There were no deliberations about the trade pact. We called it a black-box operation, and this is outrageous to the people.”
Not coincidentally, similar language has been used in a number of the protests, including the current protest against the textbook revisions. In a June 2015 interview, Ho Wei-tzu (何蔚慈), a high school student and one of the leaders of the curriculum textbooks stated, “The ‘black-box’ changes to the curriculum are set to impact all high-school students personally. The most unacceptable thing to most high-school students is the manner in which the adjustments to the curriculum where made; the process was manipulated by a small number of academics without professional expertise, and there was no consultation with high-school teachers.”
While the young people are certainly concerned about a threat to their sovereignty and identity posed by China and Ma’s pro-China policies, they are equally if not more concerned about the threat to their democracy posed by black box decision-making procedures by their own democratically elected government. This, as much as any other variable, helps explain Ma’s dismal approval ratings and the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) current internal struggles and problems with the electorate.
Survey data consistently indicates a strong Taiwanese identity among the young. But what is the content of this identity?
First, of course, this means that they see Taiwan as their home and that they see their culture and lifestyles as unique to them. Additionally, the Taiwanese identity is clearly a civic identity. To be Taiwanese also means to support democracy, and more specifically Taiwan’s democracy. In a 2010 survey I conducted of 941 college students in Taiwan I asked whether the respondents agreed with the following statement: “Protecting Taiwan’s democracy is essential to Taiwan’s future.” 95% of the respondents agreed (the other 5% had no response). In panel discussions with students I learned that they really thought this was a silly question. “Of course democracy is essential, why bother to ask?” They had a similar opinion of the question about identity. “Of course I am Taiwanese, why bother to ask?” For Taiwan’s young people, Taiwanese identity and democratic identity are essentially inseparable.
Another interesting indication of the young people’s pro-democracy attitudes can be seen from their response to open-ended question in the 2010 survey, “Outside of Taiwan what is your favorite country?” At the top of the list was Japan, chosen by about 33% of the respondents. Following that was The United States (10.5%), England (5.8%), France (5.0%), and Australia, Germany, and Korea (all about 3.5%). China was near the bottom of the list. What do all of these countries have in common? They are democracies. These young Taiwanese feel closer to other democratic nations, even those from the West, and even those they have never visited. This was true even of students who recognized their Chinese ethnic and cultural heritage.
To understand the young protesters’ opposition to Ma’s policies, then, we must start with an understanding of this democratic identity. While they are not opposed to interaction and trade with China, they are concerned about moving too close to China because this move threatens their identity, sovereignty, and democracy. While they do not deny that many people in Taiwan have a historical cultural connection to China, they insist that Taiwan’s unique culture, history, and identity are given the attention they deserve. They believe that Ma’s government has treated Taiwan as a subunit of China, instead as the unique, sovereign and democratic country that it is.
Their fears are exacerbated by the non-democratic policy-making behavior of Ma’s government. Their democracy is being threatened from the outside by an authoritarian China and other countries that refuse to recognize Taiwan’s democracy, and from the inside by their own government.
Observers who attribute the behavior of the protesters and their many supporters to “knee-jerk” hatred of China, or “irrational” opposition to free trade are truly missing the point. The point is simply this: Taiwan is a democratic, sovereign country, and the people of Taiwan highly value their democracy. Opposition to the government and to the KMT is not driven by antipathy toward China, but rather by disgust with the government’s lack of respect and concern for the opinions of the people and for its failure to follow democratic procedures. As scholars, policy makers, and journalists observe and analyze the upcoming presidential and legislative elections they will be well served to give attention to these domestic considerations instead of focusing exclusively on cross-Strait relations.
Donald Rodgers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Austin College.