On March 18 of this year, student demonstrators stormed Taiwan’s parliament, and occupied it for almost a month. During this dramatic, unprecedented outpour of public sentiment against the ruling KMT party’s handling of a trade agreement with China, we have seen students organized, riot police beating protesters, and a half-million person march in front of the president’s office. After the students left the parliament peacefully, we suddenly realized that the deeper questions raised by the movement—governance, China, and globalized capitalism—are just beginning to be answered.
We talk to the two public faces of the movement—Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) and Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷), in this exclusive interview. We ask them just how they have been pushing for their goals, even as the student activist coalition ended; we ask them whether they will run for office; and what they thought about Chinese students increasingly becoming active in Taiwan.
In short, all of us want to know: how do you go from protester to political leader? Click above to listen to the interview in Mandarin, or read the transcripts below.
Ketagalan Media (KM): First, what have you guys been doing since leaving the Legislative Yuan (the parliament)? What has been happening in terms of keeping the movement going?
Lin Fei-fan (LFF): One, we understand that the main goals of the movement has not been achieved yet. The citizens’ constitutional meetings, free trade zones, and cross-straits oversight legislation, are all still being worked on.
During the Sunflower Movement, there were actually many groups in the coalition, and each one of them has its own mission. For example, the constitutional issues are being worked on by the Democracy Protection Platform (守護民主平台); the Anti Black Box Democracy Coalition (反黑箱民主陣線) is working on arguments against free trade zones; many other groups are working on the cross-straits oversight law, such as us [Taiwan March (島國前進)], the Black Island Youth Alliance (黑色島國青年陣線)…so there are many groups each doing its own thing.
For us Taiwan March, we want to focus on the problems of representative democracy by having more ways for citizens to directly participate in political decision making. Therefore, right now we are trying to amend the Referendum Law, by holding a referendum on the Referendum Law. Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? We are against the law, yet we are using it to change itself. What we really want to achieve is to gather public support for the issue, and pressure our elected representatives to amend the law in parliament.
After taking over the parliament, what else can we do? Actually we have been working through other channels, such as lobbying our legislators—we have been doing that for many years, but the effect has not been great. We are thinking of ways to allow for more people to be involved, and to create real influence. For now, we are asking people to petition for a referendum—you need 100,000 signatures for the first phase, and then 1 million for the second phase, which if successful, can create substantial political pressure.
KM: The two of you have been involved in many of the big social issues in Taiwan, from the Wild Strawberry Movement, and then Anti Media Monopoly, to Dapu, jobless laborers, and the Huaguang Community. What connects all of them? What is your fundamental belief that drove you to be involved in all of these issues?
Chen Wei-ting (CWT): All of these issues have two common themes. First, there is the globalized, free market economy. Which is to say, we want governments to regulate global capital and corporate interests. More specifically, we are talking about the global trend to free trade. Free trade benefits mostly the large capital interests in the US, Europe, and Japan. Within Taiwan, we want the government to take up regulating these capital interests, like regulating how they can buy land, regulating how much media power they can have, regulating how they can treat employees, like that. That’s the first theme.
The second common theme, of course, is that while Taiwan is facing this world of globalized capitalism, it is even more dangerous facing the rise of China. Everyone in the world is dealing with this, but Taiwan is feeling it the most, because China claims sovereignty over us. The Wild Strawberry Movement in 2008 was a political backlash against [President] Ma Ying-jeou’s China policies, but also starting that time Ma began his economic integration with China. Then we have Chinese capital interests buying our media in 2012, and then the services trade agreement in 2014, the past 6 years we have seen how China has steadily taken over our economy.
We are against this trend of globalized free trade, because it benefits capitalists and hurts the disadvantaged people, and we are especially against China’s role in riding the wave of free trade to monopolize Taiwan’s economy and politics.
KM: On the topic of representative and direct democracy, former DPP legislator Lin Cho-shui had said that Taiwan is solving its problems on the streets more than inside the parliament. Is this to say that Taiwan’s representative democracy is broken? Other than direct electoral mechanisms such as the Referendum Law and Election and Recall Law, what else should be done to fix the democratic system? In other words, like last year’s slogan says “Demolish the Government Tomorrow”, how do you propose to rebuild it?
LFF: We believe that the recall mechanism is very important. Currently in Taiwan, there has not been one successful precedent where a member of parliament was recalled. In other words, we have the power to elect legislators, yet we don’t have power to vote him out of office when we want to.
Another element is our current electoral system, which currently favors the two major parties. For example, for any party to win a seat in the parliament, it must have at least 5% of the total votes, which has been almost impossible for smaller parties to achieve right now.
KM: Some people say that the presidential system in Taiwan is where the 51% candidate takes 100% of the power, and given Taiwan’s experience [in the 2000 presidential elections when the vote was split three ways, and the 39% candidate won], the presidential system naturally favors two major parties. Has anyone asked what you think?
CWT: As for constitutional reform, Mr. Lin Cho-shui cares a lot about constitutional separation of powers in addition to direct democracy. We agree that it’s an important issue, and this is why we ended up making it one of our demands during the Sunflower Movement. We saw that the president can reach into the legislature as the chairman of his party, and directly control the majority of the legislature. There are no checks and balances.
So we are still discussing how to redesign the constitutional system, and there is no final solution yet. The Democracy Protection Platform will also propose a constitutional amendment plan in 2015. As for presidential or parliamentary system, I don’t think there is a right answer. It’s not as if we change to a parliamentary system we can make all of our problems go away. Even in parliamentary countries like the UK or Germany, we see two major parties monopolize the political process. There has to be other electoral system reforms as well. I don’t believe we will beat the KMT’s hold on politics overnight.
Actually, we know that the DPP supported a presidential system in the early days of democratization because it is easier to upset the status quo and for an opposition party to take power. Does it make the government more accountable to the citizens now, to switch over to a parliamentary system? It’s an idea, but might not be the answer. We want to talk about how to put in checks and balances mechanisms first.
KM: A lot of people are curious whether either of you will run for office this year or in 2016, or if you will form a new political party. My question is, if that does happen, wouldn’t that party be even more radically pro-independence than the DPP, or more left-wing? Wouldn’t that take away votes from the DPP, and end up benefiting the KMT? How do you respond to that?
CWT: Right now, our organization Taiwan March has no plans to form a political party, and neither of us is planning to run for office. We still have to serve our conscription, and graduate. So there are no plans in 2016.
However, there is an organization now called Taiwan Citizens Union (公民組合) that is planning to form a party. They were already planning on it before the March 18th demonstrations. We will be involved in those discussions, and will support them if necessary.
The other question about whether we will take away votes from the DPP. First of all, us civic groups are already better at bringing in new voters than the DPP. The DPP is already an old party that can’t convince new voters. After the Sunflower Movement, the KMT’s support went down, but the DPP’s support didn’t go up. All the new young people who care about politics are closer to civic groups. If there is a new party that continues the platform of the movement, it won’t necessarily eat into the DPP’s support. Furthermore, even if it does eat into the DPP’s support, I think we should think in terms of new political parties to hold both the DPP and the KMT accountable.
The DPP also has policies that I worry about. Politically, although they claim to be pro-independence, we see that they were thinking about abolishing their independence party platform, and accepting the 1992 Consensus [that both Taiwan and China agree there is only one China and Taiwan is part of China, with different definitions of “China”]. That problem is over for now, but it could come up again anytime. On the economic side, the DPP wavers between left and right. The DPP flip-flops on free trade policies. Before March, DPP Chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen has not had a clear position on free trade, and it was only after we acted that she came out against it. DPP county and city mayors are still vague on their position. Behind all this, we need to have a clearer, more pro-independence stance.
Of course, we are still operating under what the DPP already said: that Taiwan is already an independent, sovereign country, and any changes to our borders or sovereignty must be decided by the Taiwanese people as a whole. Even when the DPP is giving up on this principle, we want to protect it, and economically we need to be more on the left to balance them. I think that is a healthy and necessary process. I think if we give up on holding the DPP accountable, we are doing them a disfavor.
KM: Finally, we want to ask about the issue of Tamkang University’s student president election [where PRC exchange students are running]. We know that Wei-ting has come out in support, but what about Fei-fan?
LFF: My attitude is to support this as well, there’s nothing much else. To be honest, The rights of Chinese students in Taiwan has always been under some form of threat by pro-independence supporters. There are already many issues with Chinese students, such as whether they should be part of our national healthcare system, or whether they can be TAs or RAs, or apply for scholarship. When I was president of National Taiwan University’s (NTU) graduate students, my position was clear: we need to treat Chinese students the same as any other foreign student. If all foreign students can work as TAs and RAs, why not Chinese students? Why should we have a special treatment for them?
I think the root of the problem is this gray area between Taiwan and China, where things are left to be ambiguous. Chinese nationals are governed by the Regulation for People Across the Taiwan Strait, a law that gives them a special category, which does not solve many of these problems. Basically, Chinese students in Taiwan should just be treated the same as any other foreign student. If students from Europe, America, Japan, Korea, or even Hong Kong can run for student president, we shouldn’t limit Chinese students.
Is there a possibility of China using this as an infiltration method? Sure. And we have had similar problems at NTU, at departmental elections. But I don’t think that is enough reason to ban them outright, but we should hold each candidate accountable by making them debate their positions and values.
Ketagalan Media (以下 KM): 離開立法院之後，你們都在做些什麼呢？學運的具體延伸，有什麼樣的工作呢？
現在我們島國前進在做的事情是希望在 318 之後，因為認識到代議政治的不足，我們希望可以直接民主，從民權補正的方式去著手，所以我們選擇依公投法為目標做我們現在主要的工作。現在公投法的推動我們所選擇的方式是用公投法修公投法，就是用公投聯署的方式去補正公投法。這看起來當然在邏輯上面有的弔詭，就是你反對它，但又用這遊戲規則在推動這件事情。實際上背後的思考是對公投法施壓，就是施壓立法院，讓立法院可以去修公投法。
第二個軸線是在台灣面對新自由主義全球化特殊的脈絡跟情境，更危險的因素就是面對中國的因素跟崛起。全世界都在面對這事情，台灣面對的更尖銳，因為台灣是唯一一個中國對外宣稱有主權的國家。 野草莓外顯主要是是政治上的議題，背後其實從 2008 年開始，從馬英九上台更進一步的經貿整合，也是從那做一個開端，後來到了媒體壟斷，看到的是中國的資本壟斷媒體，服貿協議當然更是，從2008年談判到2014年已經要面對更深入的經貿整合的問題，大概就是這兩個主軸。
現在也有人在推動選制的改革。我們現在的選制圖利兩大黨，一個小黨除非要拿超過 5% 的選票，才有辦法去取得一個席次，這完全是圖利兩大黨的一個設計。選制改革是很重要的一環，這也是我們在談台灣代議民主政治接下來如果要走的下一步，除了選罷法之外，選制改革也是一個很重要的關鍵。
KM: 現在可能很多人都有興趣問你們會在 2014, 2016 的選舉中參選嗎？也有人問，你們會組黨嗎？如果你們有組黨的話，是不是比民進黨更偏台獨或是更偏左，會不會有人覺得說你們就是分化綠營的票，又讓國民黨得利，有沒有這樣的一個說法，有的話怎麼回應？
帆：我的態度是支持，這沒有什麼好說的。說實在中國學生在台灣的權利，一直是受到某種意義下的獨派的侵害。我們在先前幾個重大關於中生的議題，包含中生是不是該納健保，或者是中生是不是在台灣擔任老師 TA, RA 的工作機會，去領去獎助學金的議題，其實之前在臺大也有過類似的爭辯。當時候我在當研習會長的時候已經主張很清楚，就我自己的認知，中國學生我們應該要視同外級學生的權利來做看待。同時，外籍學生享有怎樣的權利，如果外籍學生能做 TA, RA，那為什麼中國學生不行？我們為什麼要把中國學生特別拿出來看待？
(Feature photo of Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting in San Francisco, by Gina Mao)
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