Oppression and Overcoming: Social Movements in Post-war Taiwan
When you see news reports about social-movement activists protesting in the streets, what is your reaction? Some people may be inspired to join the demonstration; others may feel sympathy for the participants. And, of course, some people will think, “They’re just a bunch of rioters.” Whatever stance you take, as citizens of Taiwan in this current era, we enjoy freedom of speech, the ability to elect our own president, awareness of environmental issues such as nuclear power and air pollution, the ability to fight for employment-related rights, and the opportunity to explore issues relating to gender, housing, education, and so on. It is only natural that we should be concerned about the land of Taiwan where we live, and about our compatriots, and we know how to organize ourselves to safeguard our rights and protect our interests. While we tend to take the civil rights that we enjoy today for granted, in reality, these rights were hard-won; they are the fruit of a long process of democratization, and of the willingness of countless social-movement participants to take to the streets to press for reforms.
Warming up before doing exercise is very important, and “warming up” is also a stage in the lives of social movements. At different times, various groups have used different methods to mobilize and bring people together, and to prepare and establish the systems needed for discussion and action, before going on to make their demands known and their collective voices heard. In the 1980s, churches and human-rights organizations in Taiwan used classes and publications to teach social-movement activists the principles of nonviolent protest, and how to protect themselves. At the same time, Taiwanese living overseas used publications, telephone communication, recordings, and radio broadcasts to keep in touch with one another and demonstrate their support for the democracy movement in Taiwan. From the 1990s onwards, social movements in Taiwan made extensive use of alliances with other formal organizations to mobilize participants. With the growth of the World Wide Web and online media, by the 21st century it was common to see social movements using the Internet to notify participants of where demonstrations would be held, making it possible to effectively bring large numbers of people together in one place. Collaboratively-written online manifestos also became an important means of communications for social movements in the new century. For example, the Sunflower Student Movement that began on March 18, 2014 was characterized by amazingly rapid and efficient communication, organization, and division of labor. This was partly thanks to the effective utilization of new media, but also in part the result of the transmission to a new generation of the accumulated organizational experience of street demonstrations in years gone by.
Starting off: Taiwan’s social movements in the post-war period
Social movements in post-war Taiwan have been multi-faceted, from movements protesting government policies to protests motivated by livelihood issues. There have been marches joined by several tens of thousands of people, small-scale community improvement activities, as well as the “counter-opposition movements” that have emerged in recent years. The social movements that were demonized by the government during the Martial Law era helped bring Taiwan the democracy and freedom it has enjoyed ever since. With the democratization of Taiwanese politics, there was a further upsurge of social movements fighting to protect the environment, for public safety, for fair employment, for equality, and for dignity. Since the lifting of Martial Law, Taiwanese society has continued to develop, but there are still many problems that need to be addressed in relation to labor rights, human rights, energy, the environment, and so on. Fortunately, we have already set off on the social-movement path. On this “highway,” we examine and debate the issues, negotiate with vested interests, strive to make breakthroughs within the existing institutional framework, and encourage people who share our ideals to join us in our journey. Ahead of us, we can already see the first glimmerings of a new dawn.
A dynamic society
When a social movement comes to an end, the original demands may have been met, or the participants may have had to accept a compromise because of the forces ranged against them. Whatever the final result, when implementing a social movement it is hard to avoid coming into (sometimes physical) conflict with the police or the army, or with opposing groups. Divisions and misunderstandings may emerge among comrades and friends within the movement. However, this process of conflict makes it possible for new contemporary issues to be identified, and for different viewpoints to make themselves heard. In turn, this can enable the overthrowing of existing power structures and the overturning of conventional wisdom and preconceived ideas, driving the transformation of the state’s structures, and stimulating changes in society, culture, and the overall national ethos. It is precisely this process that has laid the foundations for Taiwan’s democratic freedoms. There is no society in the world in which the social structures and political systems are able to satisfy every single member of that society. Nevertheless, thanks to the lengthy development of social movements in post-war Taiwanese society, every citizen in contemporary Taiwan is able to take an interest in social issues based on their own personal expertise and position within society. They can discuss these issues freely, make their own contribution to the national dialog, and help safeguard the dynamism of Taiwanese society.