It all began with university students and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) members occupying the Taiwanese parliament late on Tuesday night. They allege the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party has used underhand and undemocratic tactics in negotiating a trade deal with China. That agreement was signed in June 2013 but has yet to be ratified. The pact would allow the two countries to invest in each other’s service industries and Taiwanese opponents believe it would leave the country vulnerable to Beijing’s huge economic power.
It has now snowballed into a full-blown protest against the government. While hundreds of demonstrators have barricaded themselves inside the parliament building in Taipei, thousands more lined the streets outside. In contrast, the police presence is extremely light — one group among the protesters numbered as few as five officers.
You might think, with those figures, that clashes between the police and protesters would be inevitable. In fact, they’re maintaining a friendly relationship. Zhang Hi Sin, a student at National Taiwan University and protest organiser, told VICE News: “Some of the police sympathize with the students and are reluctant to be here but this is their job. They have even been reminding us to wear enough clothing and to remember to eat.” It seems both sides have little desire for violent confrontation.
This is surely in no small part due to the events of February 28, 1947, when the KMT violently put down an anti-government uprising and over 10,000 people were massacred. Over 38 years of martial law and authoritarian rule known as the White Terror followed. The DPP became the first official opposition party to the KMT in 1986. In terms of democracy, Taiwan is still a baby.
The DPP and Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) claim that they are a driving force behind the current action, but there was little evidence of this at the demonstration. The students and their organizers were clearly in control of the streets, not party officials. When I asked Mr Wu, a student protester and volunteer steward, about the makeup of the demonstrations he said: “Over 80 percent of the protesters are students. From junior high school to college age.” Everyone I spoke to maintained that this is not about political affiliation. The students appear to have created their own group — one without political alignment.
As I approached the main entrance to the parliament building I was ushered through the rope line separating the majority of the protesters and those camped out in the parliament courtyard. Students used ladders to enter the second floor windows while police on the first floor stood by, either unable or unwilling to intervene.
I approached Allen, a student guarding the entrance, and asked him to clarify the situation inside. “Currently we are conveying supplies via a rope to the second floor… The students have barricaded themselves inside the parliament using chairs and tables,” Allen said. Police officers at the scene seemed happy to chat, but their commander quickly ordered them to stop.
Taiwan is famous for recycling, and that was no different here. Students worked to properly sort trash at the side of Qingdo East road. Vivian, head of the team of recycling students, felt that the media has largely ignored this aspect of the protest. She told VICE News that recycling is essential. “If we leave this place with garbage everywhere the people that disagree with what we’re doing now, will disagree with us even more.” The protesters clearly have a social conscience.
Mimi first demonstrated inside the parliament building, but she is now camped in the courtyard. Clearly emotional, she told VICE News: “The government has power, but we are the people who gave it to them!” There is a huge amount of passion at this demonstration but a complete lack of violence. This seems to be a truly peaceful sit-in protest and not one Molotov cocktail, shield, or bat could be found. There were no heavies in unmarked military garb giving orders. No one was hurling profanities at the police. Bizarrely, protesters kept repeating “Xin Ku Le” (Thanks for your hard work). With such warm relations on show, it remains to be seen what will happen if, and when, the police are commanded to clear out the protesters.