Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Limits of Civil Disobedience

The Limits of Civil Disobedience
China Times editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, Republic of China)
A Translation
April 24, 2014

Summary: Permit us to be blunt. If the concept of "civil disobedience" can be so flagrantly abused, why do we even need democratic elections? Why bother to abide by any system whatsoever? After all, it's winner take all. Losers can simply play the "civil disobedience" card. The KMT has been paralyzed by "civil disobedience." But suppose there is yet another change in ruling parties? Will the DPP find itself on the receiving end of "civil disobedience?" We will have to wait and see.

Full text below:

The Sunflower Student Movement has ended. But the social and political movements provoked by the students remain on the ascendant. During the student movement the television cameras captured the naive and uncomplicated expressions of the protesting youths. They also revealed the methodical planning behind the movement. They television cameras forced adults to look upon the students with grudging admiration. They enabled the student movement to win public support and recognition.

The students have dispersed. But the passions surrounding the movement have intensified. Misconceptions about the student movement have shaken the foundations of our social order. It is time to let go of passions, and cooly contemplate the Sunflower phenomenon. If one sits back and allows misconceptions to persist, eventually our government and society will cease to function. This is very worrisome.

Mobs beseiged and occupied government offices. Many people would rationalize away their behavior as "civil disobedience." Civil disobedience has suddenly become a buzz word. Student groups occupied the Legislative Yuan, stormed the Executive Yuan, and eventually laid seige to a police substation. Groups opposed to the construction of windmills occupied the atrium of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. Groups opposed to the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant began a hunger strike and surrounded the Legislative Yuan. Every one of them invoked the concept of "civil disobedience." Even KMT legislators invoked "civil disobedience" when questioning Premier Chiang. This forced political scientists to offer an impromptu class in remedial political science for legislators.

Can Premier Chiang's interpretation allay legislative doubts? We do not know. But we can be sure that "civil disobedience" rhetoric has already confused many members of the public. This is reminiscent of the STA. Many people have no idea what the STA stands for. Yet they march in lockstep to oppose it. Many people have no idea what the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant controversy is about. Yet they have hurriedly jumped on the anti-nuclear bandwagon. They oppose this. They oppose that. They trample over existing laws. They refuse to abide by the results of legal protocol. Instead, they trot out "civil disobedience" rhetoric to rationalize illegal conduct. Apparently illegal conduct is able to magically seize the moral high ground.

Sunflower student leaders Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting were questioned on suspicion of obstructing official business. They surrendered to the Taipei District Prosecutor's Office. Their statements brimmed over with boasts that their conduct constituted "civil disobedience." They essentially proclaimed that even if their conduct was unreasonable, disorderly, and illegal, they need merely redefined it as "civil disobedience" in order to escape punishment. They may even be praised as heroes. Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting trotted out this high-minded rhetoric. They even argued that their conduct saved constitutional rule and democracy. 

This is truly clever sophistry. Their conduct clearly undermined constitutional rule and democracy. But all they had to do was label it "civil disobedience," and presto, they are instantly transformed into saviors of constitutional rule and democracy. Such useful political rhetoric., They could ignore the rule of law. They could destroy the system. They could do whatever they wanted. Afterwards, all they had to do was to spin their conduct as "civil disobedience." They can then claim without blushing or breathing hard, that they were in fact saving the system, therefore the police cannot arrest them, prosecutors cannot indict them, and judges cannot judge them. If they do, then they are resorting to "state violence" against them.

Is constitutional rule and democracy on today's Taiwan in fact on the brink of a crisis? Has it in fact been brought to the level where it must be saved by the likes of Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting? Can it be saved only by occupying the Legislative Yuan, storming the Executive Yuan, and beseiging a police precinct station? If so, then the 30 years since the lifting of martial law count for nothing. The constitutional reforms, the second change in ruling parties, the praise the nation has earned as an exemplar of third wave democratic transition and consolidation. These and other achievements all count for nothing.

Or perhaps we can pose the question in a different way. Citizens pay taxes and elect legislators. The vast majority of the students have yet to pay any taxes. Yet they occupied the Legislative Yuan for over 20 days. They seriously delayed legislative business. Many major bills affecting the public welfare could not be reviewed, harming the interests of many citizens. Yet the students who occupied the Legislative Yuan declared that by engaging in "civil disobedience," they were saving constitutional rule and democracy. Put bluntly, they, not the taxpayers, are the true "citizens." As for those who choose to obey the system, who pay their taxes according to the law, who voted for the representatives of their choice? Well, tough luck. They probably got what they deserved.

Actually, this is the biggest crisis on Taiwan. Our democracy holds elections. It elects a government and a legislature, according to majority rule. But opposition political parties and groups are unwilling to accept the results. So they use obstructionism and mass movements to overthrow majority rule, and destroy the rules of the game. They euphemistically refer to this as "civil disobedience." They further claim that only they represent the people. Democracy is what they say it is, nothing else. Anything that fails to go their way, is labeled a backroom deal. They have flagrantly destroyed the system, yet blatantly boast that they saved the system.

"On Civil Disobedience" is a famous essay, written in 1894, by famed American author Henry David Thoreau. He was protesting against the Mexican-American War and slavery at the time. He refused to pay the poll tax. He was arrested and imprisoned. Later, during the mid-20th century, African American civil rights leader Martin Luther King protested discriminatory laws and policies against blacks in the southern states.

He too invoked "civil disobedience" during his protests. These examples constitute the true fulfillment of justice. They were not motivated by the desire to benefit a particular political party's private interests.

Permit us to be blunt. If the concept of "civil disobedience" can be so flagrantly abused, why do we even need democratic elections? Why bother to abide by any system whatsoever? After all, it's winner take all. Losers can simply play the "civil disobedience" card. The KMT has been paralyzed by "civil disobedience." But suppose there is yet another change in ruling parties? Will the DPP find itself on the receiving end of "civil disobedience?" We will have to wait and see.

2014年04月24日 04:10 中國時報 本報訊












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