Sunday, December 07, 2014

Letter to Hong Kong: The Sunflower and The Umbrella

I was in Taipei last weekend, once again watching another major election taking place in Taiwan. This 2014 nine-in-one election of Taiwan returned more than ten thousands elected officers, from the six municipal mayors, to county or city mayors, as well as municipal and county councilors, township chiefs and councilors, chiefs of villages and boroughs. All in all, it was a major exercise and demonstration of democracy, in the only Chinese democratic region in the world.

And how politics have changed in Taiwan over the last twenty years. I still remember the time when the atmosphere on the whole island was so tense before the election that taxi drivers couldn’t stop talking to us, the passengers, about their political views and how they felt about the Kuomintang and the Democratic Progressive Party, that were the blue and the green respectively. But you know what it was like this time? When I was in a taxi on election day, and we told the driver that we were in Taiwan to observe their election and asked if he had already voted, he said, “No, I don’t plan to vote today.”

Does that reflect growing apathy? No, I actually think it reflects a new level of maturity and stability in Taiwanese politics. Election day is just another day. Ruling parties can be swapped in and out of power. So if you choose not to vote, that may be a political expression in itself. In retrospect, the defeat of the Kuomintang this time can be largely attributed to their supporters not turning out to vote for their candidates, rather than switching to support the DPP.

Many people in Hong Kong still think Taiwanese democracy means chaos and fistfights in their legislature, using that as an excuse against implementing more democracy in Hong Kong. That is far, far from the truth, and is possibly a myth used by certain people or factions to purposely mislead Hong Kong people.

Yes, democracy cannot solve all problems, but it is still the fairest and most stable political system. The adoption and development of democracy in Taiwan is a great example of making society more stable, in spite of the difficult economic challenges Taiwan has been facing. The level of participation by its young people in this election, making their voices heard and their impact felt, is most impressive.

As we look at Taiwan today, one cannot help but compare their Sunflower Student Movement with the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. The Sunflower Movement lasted for 31 days, but the Umbrella Movement is already more than double the Sunflower Movement in its duration. Within 31 days, the students in Taiwan successfully fought for concessions from the government, yet, in Hong Kong, this increasingly is becoming an impossible task, which means that it was Taiwanese student leaders to convince their occupiers to retreat.

But the Hong Kong government instead refused to talk or even move an inch in its position, against the call for true universal suffrage and a repeal of the restrictions imposed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on August 31. Instead, our government waited for the obstruction to cause enough frustration among our citizens to turn the tide of public opinion in their favor, in a sense, successfully diverted the attention of most people in Hong Kong from constitutional reform to a traffic congestion and local business issue.

When we discussed with some of the students and civil society advocates in Taiwan, it was clear that they knew that they had to be in the struggle for the long run, and in order to sustain such a social movement, the most important factor would be to sustain the support of public opinion, rather than what to do to escalate or merely prolong the occupation. They also learned from experience how an attempt to escalate by occupying the Executive Bureau ended up backfiring in public opinion support.

In our exchange with the participants of the Taiwanese student movement, two comments impressed me the most, and let me share them with you. The first one was a comparison between the natures of the occupations. They said, “In Taiwan, we occupied space. In Hong Kong, you are occupying time.” The second statement was more directly about how to end a phase of a long-term movement: “There is no best moment to retreat, only a worse and even worse time to leave.”

But anyway, despite the wide differences in the level of experience and maturity of our democratic system, the interaction between Taiwan and Hong Kong is increasingly evident. We both face similar problems. In Taiwan, people no longer seriously talk about independence, while in Hong Kong we have never really considered that as an option. Instead, the economic integration with China for both Taiwan and Hong Kong through those so-called “free trade agreement” and other policies are not bringing economic benefits that can be fairly shared by all people. Young people see that opportunities are dwindling right in front of them, and these closer economic cooperation agreements seem to merely line the pockets of the richest few.

So that’s why when one of the richest men in Taiwan made a comment to query the importance of democracy, asking, “Can you eat democracy like food that you eat?” The young students responded by saying, “Food without democracy does not taste good.” This generation believes in choice, making their own destinies and not simply following orders of power. They make things happen and they want to change the world.

Any government or political group that tries to ignore this trend would only make enemies of the next generation, hastening its own demise. An example is that, when we asked people in the Kuomintang in Taiwan about how their election may have been affected by the Umbrella Movement, they said they did not see any impact. When we asked the same question to the DPP, their answer was a resounding yes, and then they gave us a long list of examples. And you see who won this election by an overwhelming margin.

If democracy can strive in Taiwan, one day it will happen in Hong Kong too, if we keep the faith, fight the good fight, and return the movement to the people, by putting people first – listening to them and helping them see that justice, fairness, human rights and democracy are important for them and their children. If democracy can strive in Taiwan and one day, Hong Kong, eventually it will change China too.

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