Taiwan’s Protests are Harming Democracy

If the Taiwan government reaches a compromise with protesters, it could set a dangerous precedent by encouraging others to react violently when they oppose public policy.

These days, if you attend a class in Taiwan’s universities, you’ll find few students showing up. Where are they?


Protests over a Taiwan-China trade pact continued, with up to 350,000 attending a rally outside the Presidential Office. Credit: J. Michael Cole for The Diplomat

Well, they are busy at organizing protests against the government’s insistence on the passage of a trade-in-services pact with China signed last June.

So far, this protest is going too far from being rational to a violent riot, which could be a disaster to the entire society.

This trade-in-services pact aims to reduce trade barriers and facilitate corporation between China and Taiwan, and has surprisingly generated a panic among college students.

“It will hurt small businesses and job opportunities for local people, and should be scrapped.” Said He Shi-Ting, a leader of the student protest.

Under such concern, protesters gathered outside the presidential office a day after President Ma Ying-jeou rejected demands to withdraw an agreement to open Taiwan’s service industries to competitors from China.

With signs reading “defend democracy, withdraw the trade deal,” thousands of protesters clashed with riot police on the night of March 23 after storming the legislature for the first time in Taiwan’s history.

Legislature is not the sole victim. The stalemate, now approaching its third week, may stall the country’s growth. According to the Taiwan Financial Supervisory Commission’s announcement on March 24, Taiwan’s stock market dropped by 154 points, losing about NT $534 billion (USD $176 billion) since the occupation of the legislature on March 18.

This social movement has trampled on democracy and not only hurt Taiwan’s economy, but also leads to social disorder and turns the entire society into a state of total chaos.

In a democratic society, government’s policy should reflect the opinion of the majority. When a certain opinion is not exposed in policy decisions, there may be two explanations: this idea only represents a few people, or the political system fails to reflect the opinion of the majority.

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In the former case, it is unreasonable to impose the minor’s opinion on the majority. In the latter case, the protest should focus on requiring a public re-vote on the trade deal and revamping the political system, so that the council can represents public opinion more effectively. However, no matter what the condition is, it is irrational to threaten government by organizing a social movement and allowing it to become a violent riot.

What’s worse in a social movement is when protesters mistakenly regard themselves as representatives of the majority. This is what they are doing according to Zheng Zhi-Hao, a protester From National Taipei University.

According to Taiwan TV report, only 30 percent of citizens “feel hostile to this trade pact.” In fact, most business groups and others have voiced support for the deal since they have examined the content of this trade agreement.

Even Zheng Zhi-Ling, a professor in National Taipei University, said “The trade pact can bring mutually beneficial, practical benefits to both Taiwan and China” on March 26. In contrast, at least one half of the protesters who broke into Taiwan’s legislature “hadn’t read the trade pact yet.”

Even if Taiwan’s government finally compromises to the protesters under such pressure, we cannot cheer on the “victory” of the social movement. On the contrary, it is a dangerous hint: now that all citizens witness a successful social movement, next time when some people are dissatisfied with government, they may organize a social movement rather than pass their opinion through a legitimate way. When rationality is replaced by violence, the society is retreating from democracy.

Overall, as China is Taiwan’s biggest trading partner, in the long run, this trade-in-services pact is instrumental to Taiwan’s economy as a whole, and that is the very reason why President Ma still insists on it under such pressure.

For the protesters, the first thing they should do is go back home, calm down and review the content of trade-in-services pact to see if this pact is truly as threatening as they think. Being objective and rational all the time is never easy, but this is an effective way to improve democracy.

Yan Cong is a Master’s student in New York University’s Political Science Department.