Reconciling Activism with Politics

Civil society must come to terms with the fact that their good ideas will only become policies if they are adopted and voted in by legislators
J. Michael Cole

Very few events in Taiwan’s recent history have re-energized the political scene as much as the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March. Besides shaking the very foundations of a system that had been on cruise control for far too long, the movement succeeded in mobilizing a large segment of the young population that had hitherto seemed uninterested in politics and social issues.

But while this development is certainly encouraging, it is largely insufficient. If the movement is to have any long-lasting impact on Taiwan’s future, its philosophy, however noble, will have to translate into policy — and for this, whether activists like it or not they will need politicians and legislators.

The Sunflowers’ greatest accomplishment, and to a lesser extent that of its precursor organizations, was to remind the authorities that there are certain lines that Taiwanese will not allow them to cross. Although the movement has been unfairly described as “anti-China” or “anti-globalization,” its principal targets were government accountability and the mechanisms of governance that for years had been failing Taiwan’s citizens. Consequently, the first phase of the uprising consisted of an attempt to raise public awareness and put government officials and legislators on notice. By and large, this endeavor was successful, in that it generated large amounts of media attention locally and abroad, and managed to draw a crowd of between 350,000 and 500,000 for a mass rally on March 30.

The second phase of the movement, which was initiated earlier this month, builds upon the first and will seek to educate a population that is hopefully more attentive to issues of governance with a series of workshops around the nation.

Though it is the most prominent, the Sunflower Movement has not been the only civic organization in recent years to launch such initiatives. Taiwan is blessed with a vibrant civil society — NGOs, academics, lawyers, and so on — which is an important, but oftentimes overlooked, contributor the quality of a country’s democracy. Notwithstanding its impressive qualities, civil society has failed to turn this incubator of ideas into an instrument by which to implement policies. There are several reasons for this, but three stand out. All three help explain why the Sunflower Movement felt it was necessary to escalate in March.

The first is lack of government accountability. Enjoying full control of the Executive branch and a majority in the legislature, the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration has had little incentive to listen to other voices as it seeks to achieve its ambitious objectives of improving ties with China with the little time that it has left. Pressure from Beijing, as well as from a business community that stands to benefit from liberalized cross-Strait ties, has exacerbated that phenomenon, as has the streak within the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to regard itself as a paternal benefactor that knows what is best for the people. As a result of these factors, the government has for the most part only paid lip service to civil society and sometimes has ignored it altogether, which only succeeded in widening the chasm between the administration and social movements.

The second factor is the inability of opposition parties to formulate policies that can challenge the KMT. The opposition has been largely disorganized and oftentimes too much focused on the next elections. Infighting and factionalism have also compounded the handicap of holding a minority of seats in the legislature. Legislators have furthermore been the victims of a system that forces them to engage in various activities that have little to do with lawmaking but that end up swallowing a lot of their time. Lawmakers spend an inordinate amount of time attending weddings, funerals, and other activities in their constituencies, duties that while useful in garnering votes oftentimes make it impossible for legislators to focus their energy on formulating policies. As a result, the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has often been incapable of tabling counter-policies that can appeal to the public, the business sector, and legislators from the other camp who might be inclined to support them if the proposals are good enough (interparty cooperation is possible and does happen on occasion, though this rarely gets reported). Far too often, DPP legislators have opposed for the sake of opposing, while the few that have sought to generate ideas have done so without the support of their party. A good example of this is the DPP’s inability to come up with, or to agree upon, an alternative plan for the proposed (and not uncontroversial) experimental free-trade zone. The KMT has the advantage of numbers and on top of that it controls the Executive branch; consequently, facing a scarcity of resources, the DPP would greatly benefit from tapping into the ideas generated by civil society and incorporating those into its counter-policies. For a number of reasons, it has rarely done so, a deficiency that DPP members themselves acknowledged in the wake of the Sunflower Movement.

The third factor is the direct result of the previous two: it is the disenchantment of civil society with government institutions, political parties, and legislators. Faced with an unresponsive government and a neutralized or seemingly uninterested opposition, social movements have grown cynical and tend to regard all things government as corrupt and equally bad. Although there are ample reasons for such beliefs, this resentment has also widened the gap between society and government mechanisms. As a result, civil society has tended to operate in a vacuum or as little more than a permanent channel to express discontent with the authorities. The tremendous brainpower that fuels social movements, meanwhile, has been unable to live to its full potential, with ideas rarely taking flight.

Whether they like it or not, civil society and politicians will have to learn to work together again. Legislators will have to become a lot more receptive to input from social movements, and must be made to understand that their continued failure to do so will have consequences on their ability to remain in office. The DPP, above all, will have to take up that responsibility, if only because it is the only agent that is cohesive enough to act as a counterweight to the Executive. A stronger DPP that generates ideas that resonate with the public will be much harder for the KMT to ignore, and thus serve as an incentive for the blue camp to take opposition voices more seriously. This isn’t about “green” or “blue,” but simply a matter of checks and balances, a necessary component for a healthy democracy in which the Executive does not have primacy over policies and ideas as it currently does.

For its part, civil society will have to learn to trust again, and must realize that opposing alone, that waving banners on Ketagalan Blvd or occupying government buildings, is not the stuff upon which nations are built. Unless they run for office or form their own political party (or overthrow the system altogether, which does not appear to be their aim), members of civil society must ultimately come to terms with the fact that their good ideas will only become laws and policies if they are adopted and voted in by legislators. It won’t be easy, and there is justifiably a lot of bad blood in the system. But at some point activism will have to be reconciled with politics, as the alternative is a constant state of warfare that only serves to weaken the nation.

J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.

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