- a student
I attended the protest in memory of 洪仲丘 (Hong Zhongqiu - Hung Chungchiu is how I think it'd be spelled in that Romanization system I never learned) tonight, which was also an anti-Ma Yingjiu protest (we need more of those), with a few anti-nuclear power folks, and a larger protest against military abuse/torture, especially directed at whistleblowers (some say Hong was that, others say he was a much-disliked troublemaker).
It was more than "tens of thousands" as news reports say - by the time I got there you could barely move and it was more like 100,000 at least, probably more like 150,000+.
This is the biggest protest I've seen since 火大 and even that didn't seem to convene quite as many people on Ketagalan Boulevard between Dongmen and the Presidential office, running all the way to 228 Park, past NTU Hospital and the library and CKS Memorial Hall.
The thing is, these protests happen pretty often in Taiwan: it's something unique about the country that sets it apart from China, that's for sure. They let the people vent their anger and show their frustration, but nothing much ever happens. People feel like they've done something, they've stood up to speak their minds, they've lent their bodies to the headcount at these events. Then everyone goes home feeling energized...
...and nothing changes.
Not so different from the USA, really. Can't help but make one feel a bit disaffected and cynical (cynical? Me? NAW!).
And of course because Les Miserables was a recently popular movie, people had to break out into a Taiwanese version of Do You Hear The People Sing? You can listen here:
Someone even left a sign in CKS Memorial Hall MRT station that said "Liberte, Egalite, Fraterite". I don't really mind if they want to appropriate the French Revolution (although enough heads rolled in that that maybe it wasn't the best choice...but...but...Les Miserables!) but the t-shirts that said "WE SHALL OVERCOME" were an appropriation too far in my opinion.
The catalyst of this protest was the death of Hong Zhongqiu - a corporal in the army doing his obligatory military service (something being phased out currently). He was put into solitary confinement - some say in a hot room with no windows or water, others say he was forced to do punishing exercises in the hot sun with no water - and died a few days before he was set to be released. Still others say tapes of what went on show proof of torture. Some say the punishment would have killed anyone, others say he was not fit to withstand it, but the army doctor who should have said so instead pronounced him fit to withstand the punishment.
Accounts differ as to why he was treated this way - some say he reported that his superior officers were bullying the conscripts into keeping their bunks clean, although their own quarters were a mess. Some say he blew the whistle on financial wrongdoing and bribery (this is not proven, just one thing I've heard), some say it was for bringing in a mobile phone with camera that was not allowed to the base, still others say "mostly the superior officers just didn't like him, he was seen as whiny, bratty and soft, not taking orders".
All the eyes you see - many of which also say "Big Citizen Is Watching You" are meant to convey, from what I was told, that while the government and military may try to cover up what happened to Hong, among other things - more people whose family members died in the military under similar or suspicious conditions also took the stage - that the citizens are watching them. The teardrops are red to symbolize blood. People shouted everything from 洪媽媽加油！to 馬英九下台! to (something something) 黑目" which not even my Taiwanese friend could fully understand, so I don't think my lack of understanding was a language barrier.
I didn't bring this issue up in class - for once, my students did it for me. Every single class I've had with male students has involved them bringing it up enthusiastically. In some one-on-ones I heard private horror stories (and one guy who defended those who punished Hong, saying "I agree the punishment was too severe, but his actions did deserve punishment" - maybe, but no punishment that might result in death is acceptable or appropriate). One class involved five men talking at length about their own experiences and sharing their stories.
What my students (male, mostly in their 30s and 40s) say is this (and I quote from memory, with cleaned-up English so mistakes don't get in the way of the message):
"Every Taiwanese man, when they heard about Hong Zhongqiu, knew exactly what happened. The "crime" or "mistake" he made doesn't matter, the expected punishment doesn't matter, the investigation doesn't matter. We saw that report - every single Taiwanese man - and we knew it."
"Those guys doing their obligatory service, they are usually college graduates. And their superior officers are career military guys. The guys who become career military are usually not that smart, they are encouraged to do that because it's a secure job, you can make money and you can leave the service in 8 years and get a pension for the rest of your life (me: it wasn't clear when you could draw 50% of your pay and how long you had to stay to draw 100%). So the not-smart guys do that instead of college, and actually you can even start in high school and go to 'military school'. That will count towards your 8 years!"
"So you can leave by 35 and get your pay, and still get another job and have double income! If you are not a smart guy, that is a really good idea. So these dumb guys, they see the new kids coming in. If you went to Taida (NTU), you are a Master ("have a Masters"), you are from Taipei or you are handsome, they will bully you and treat you like garbage."
"They will see your papers and say 'oooh, you went to Tai-da, I see! You are a Taipei boy!' and you know you are in big trouble for the rest of your service. And they do all these bad things. They bully you. Actually, they will do things like say 'OK, here is a treat for tonight! We'll all go out to dinner!' but if you are doing your service, that's terrible news! Because you have to pay for your superior officer, but you earn very little money. So they get a free dinner, and you pay at least NT$1000 for that. That happens once a month or so. They steal your money this way."
"When I did my service on Matsu on the north island, the officer would give me NT$50 and say 'get me beef noodles'. But the beef noodles are NT100 or so, and when you are on the base on Matsu you have to take a taxi to get to any beef noodle shop. I told him NT50 wasn't enough and he really beat me! So next time I just took the NT50 and used my own money to take the taxi and buy the noodles. That was his plan, actually."
"Basically everybody knows these guys are assholes. They always treat you badly. Only stupid people join" (me: OK, that is maybe not fair, or at least I can't say I totally agree with that view, because I just don't know if it's really true. I am sure some intelligent people become career military officers. So this quote does not reflect my personal viewpoint) "and I can tell you it's true. I taught in the military school, and those guys failed all their classes before. I had to teach them fractions! Just fractions! And they still failed! And they always hated me because I already had a Masters. And I got really good at typing in Chinese bopomofo, because the officer would take some report or idea from books and tell me 'I need this typed as a report, do this by tomorrow' so I would copy it into a report and he'd pass it on as his idea, and when I got that work I knew I would have to work all night. So I learned to do it quickly. I did not dare to tell him no, or that he was a cheater."
"I taught in military college. My study was cryptography for my Master's and they treated me so badly, because I went to top schools in Taiwan" (it's true, he did) "and I had to teach cryptography to those guys who would become generals or something like that. I can tell you, they are very bad, they are actually stupid! And these are the guys in charge! They are the ones who have the chance to be secret agents in China or somewhere, and they usually do a bad job because they are too stupid to understand basic cryptography. But my job was better than [student who taught fractions in a military school]."
"In fact we all know about this stuff. The new kids are hit or punished in a bad way. And the officers are terrible. Very stupid and corrupt. Always cheating. Always telling us to do things, but they can't even do the same things! Always giving us too many exercises or something that is useless. But you know that, and you have to keep quiet. Just be quiet, just do it, just finish."
"I don't know why he wanted to say something or do some complaint. He knows he will be punished for that! Every Taiwanese man knows that! You just be quiet and shut up and do your work and then you can leave."
"The system cannot change. Those guys in charge, they have friends and know the politicians. And usually for generals you get that job because your father was a general. So we know the system will not change."
"Maybe slowly it can change, but I think 100 years. Those guys won't let it change. So the important guys don't get any punishment. We are so upset about the verdict, but it's not a surprise. The important guys never get punished."
"Actually the people who signed the report on Mr. Hung, they don't really know his situation, because they are high-level guys and he was just a young man. But they know the system is bad. We all know it. Nobody can change it."
"I worry about my son, he will have to do that soon. I tell him, 'just shut up and do what they tell you'. don't want him to die. Just be quiet. You can't change the system."
"And that is why every Taiwanese man knows the truth. We saw that news and we thought - agh! - because at that time, that was also our life. We know. We know. They can't lie to us."