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.

  • Guest

    I would just like to ask if the French Revolution, American Independence and Sun Yat-sen’s revolution were all violent and unacceptable. Obviously not. They were also furious about the government, and they even overthrew the government. Then how can you say that this hurts Taiwan’s democracy?

    And do you know why they occupied the parliament? Not at all.
    They occupied the parliament ’cause all the legislators were under too much control from their parties and failed to fulfill their original post of representing people’s voices. More, I don’t know where you got the opinion poll that only 30% were hostile to the pact. Even the opinion poll done by the government showed that 46% supported the movement, and to be honest, the questions itself made by government agency was purely against the movement. Most of the opinion polls showed over 70% were for the movement.

    In addition, all the protesters had worked on conversations with the gov but nothing was made as the gov only kept doing their propaganda. And just to mention that this movement is a demonstration of civil obedience.

    Finally, it is our civil right to protest against any public policy we dissatisfy about.

    I’m Taiwanese. Respect our democracy.

  • Jeff Lee

    If anything, the protestors in Taiwan have been exemplified non-violent protest. This is NOT A RIOT! The author seems to imply that those who oppose the trade-in-services pact merely don’t understand it and upon additional reading will realize it’s rational. How do you or your quoted source know that half the protestors haven’t read the pact? Many of these protestors are educated students who have read through it and are voicing their disapproval–sounds pretty Democratic to me.

  • petrolpete

    Just a question to the author – you are from China, aren’t you?

    It is quite obvious you’re biased.

  • Irony

    Am I right that a Chinese is telling Americans how Taiwan’s protests are bad for democracy?

  • Author Misses the Point

    These protests were non-violent in nature – part of the definition of a democracy is for the people to enact the change they wish to see in the government…

  • lame

    On the stock market, TWSE went from 8,731 points on March 18 to 8,605 points on March 24. Was that you’re talking about? I guess so. But you didn’t even bother to check and understand that the index rose to 8,905 points on April 2, five days before the protesters announced that they would pull out on April 7. The index was 8,876 points on April 7 and 8,948 points on April 10 when the protesters withdrew from the legislative floor.

    And you study in NYC graduate school. What a shame.

  • GuestFromTaiwan

    Terrible, misinformed and misleading article. You have no idea what you’re talking about. Come over to Taiwan and experience for yourself.

  • Guest

    No offense, but this is really a poorly informed article.

  • chris

    Written by a chinese national. Ridiculous article paid for by the chinese communist government.