A Clash of Civilizations

The strong reactions to police violence during the occupation of the Executive Yuan tell us many things about Taiwanese society
J. Michael Cole

One refrain that was often heard after the police crackdown at the Executive Yuan during the night of March 23-24 was that the activists who occupied the building were “lucky” they were in Taiwan, and that police in other countries — even in Western democracies — would have handled the situation with far less restraint. Implicit in those comments was the view that the protesters who were roughed up, and the dozens who sustained injuries, deserved the medicine. But did they?

As some critics of the Sunflower Movement, which orchestrated the occupation, have argued, the measures taken by police forces, even those in mature Western democracies, to evict activists engaged in similar action would likely have been much more severe. Of course we can only imagine how authoritarian regimes such as that in China would have reacted.

But the argument only goes so far. While those who support the police’s handling of the situation at the Executive Yuan often contrast their behavior with the expected response by law enforcement in the U.S., we should also note that police brutality in that country is a highly controversial matter, and not a norm that is acceptable to the American public. In fact, civil lawsuits against police offenders in the U.S. cost taxpayers several hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The city of Chicago alone had to borrow approximately US$100 million earlier this year to provide compensation for police misconduct during 2013. In the three years from 2009 through 2011, the city paid settlements totaling about US$45 million for police brutality and misconduct.

What this tells us is that in democratic societies governed by rule of law and accountability of the state, use of disproportionate force by law enforcement agencies is indeed illegal and should therefore not be regarded as the standard by which to assess police behavior in other countries, including here in Taiwan.

Moreover, aside from the illegality of police brutality, it is important to take the nature of the societies into consideration. Not every country is equal when it comes to the “acceptability” of violence. Various factors — history, economic development, the political system, size of population, and social stability among them — make some societies more prone to, or willing to countenance, brute force than others. In some countries, life can be, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “solitary, nasty, poor, brutish, and short.” In those societies, physical violence is much more prevalent and is therefore not regarded as an aberration. Life there is “cheap,” and individuals are easily dispensed with. The lynching of chengguan, or “urban officials,” in China’s Zhejiang Province last month is but one of many examples from across the Strait.

It goes without saying that the threshold of acceptable violence by police forces is also contingent on the perceived value of life within a society. In other words, societies with a high prevalence of violence (e.g., Pakistan) will find police brutality against criminals more acceptable than less violent ones, though of course we must also account for authoritarian versus democratic systems of governance, in which the former is less inclined to care for public views on the behavior of the police or internal security forces.

For reasons that have everything to do with its idiosyncratic development, Taiwan is by global standards an extremely pacifist nation, which perhaps accounts for its apparent lack of a martial spirit. Its economic development, political system, low birth rate, levels of education and social cohesion are all factors that have fostered an overwhelmingly peaceful society. Other variables, though those are less easily quantified, may have also had an influence. Among them is the fact that Taiwan transitioned peacefully from authoritarianism to democracy, a rare feat that has shaped, though probably unconsciously, the national approach to conflict resolution. Past traumas, from Taiwan’s experiences under Japanese colonialism to its role during World War II, not to mention the horrors of the 228 Massacre and the White Terror, may also have engendered a spirit of “never again,” which militates against the acceptability of violence within society. Another variable could be the fact that Taiwan was itself populated by people who had fled China’s incessant warring to start a new life, much as Europeans felt compelled to leave the Old World to seek a brighter, and certainly less violent, future in North America. More speculatively, the constant threat of military invasion by China and the long shadow of the Second Artillery Corps’ 1,600 ballistic missiles may also have turned notions of violence, which truly exist out there, into an abstract form here at home.

It should not be surprising, then, that when Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) contended that riot police gently tapped protesters on the shoulder before removing them from the Executive Yuan, the public reacted with anger. No one died on March 24, but several people sustained serious head injuries, and to this day nobody knows exactly what happened to the dozens of activists who were locked inside the building and surrounded by truncheon-wielding riot police. Surely, in countries like Russia and China, a similar incident could easily have turned into a bloodbath. But this is Taiwan, and the rules of the game are different.

A follower of Chang An-le expresses his anger during a protest near the Legislative Yuan on April 1. Photo by J. Michael Cole

A follower of Chang An-le expresses his anger during a protest near the Legislative Yuan on April 1. Photo by J. Michael Cole

In many ways, it could be said that Taiwan has entered a postmodern age where the violence of the old world is now regarded as an abnormality. It’s hard to think of any country where society would not only trivialize, but in fact deride, members of a major Triad with a history of murder and violence. And yet, this is exactly how Taiwanese reacted to the threats by former Bamboo Union leader Chang An-le (張安樂) and the shenanigans of his betel nut-crazed followers during their “counter-protest” on April 1 near the legislature. No sooner had Chang retreated than videos were appearing that poked fun at his vocabulary or at the admittedly comical taunts by one of his thugs.

The incidents of March 23-24 did not only force society to question the legality of police action and who should ultimately be made accountable if abuse indeed occurred, as it most certainly did. They demonstrated, in the starkest of terms, just how incompatible are the two societies that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and some people here are seeking to unite through persuasion, economic enticements, or force. Despite its impressive economic development, which has lifted millions of people out of poverty, China remains a harsh, traumatized country where life is cheap, where police and citizens will not hesitate to resort to extreme violence if their interests are threatened, or if the order is given from above.

Conversely, the horror felt by many people here when the bloodied victims of police violence emerged from the Executive Yuan in the early hours of March 24 is indicative of the very low threshold for what constitutes “acceptable” violence and brutality in Taiwan. The overwhelming kindness of this society, which sometimes is confused with innocence, is a national trait born of its past traumas and successes in peaceful democratization. This is something that should not only be cherished, but be protected at all costs.

J. Michael Cole is Editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan.

2 Responses to “A Clash of Civilizations”

May 07, 2014 at 7:07 pm, Aaron J Lee said:

I would love to agree with you on this, but the oulandish brutality inflicted on recent antinuclear protesters looked like a scene out of Turkey or Brazil. The attacks reverberated through the blogosphere but never caught on in mainstream Taiwanese media.


May 18, 2014 at 2:39 am, John Schmidt said:

As someone who is in Turkey now, I find it hard to believe that Taiwan has sank to the level of Turkey. Turkish police are some of the most brutal I have ever seen in a supposedly free country. Taiwan’s police may be guilty of abuse, but I don’t think they have reached Turkey levels yet.


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