Friday, March 10, 2017

It's time to stop those pro-China protesters

Yeah, China!

Awhile back, I ran into those odious but seemingly-legal pro-unification protesters that sometimes pop up at major Taipei landmarks. Imade the case that, as strongly as I disagreed with their views and goals, that as Taiwanese citizens they had the right to protest. I find it ironic that they have been protesting in support of Taiwan being unified against its will with a country that would immediately take away their right to protest, but they still had, I argued, the right to protest. Their ironic goals make them stupid, but don't negate their rights. 

I want to take that back. I no longer feel they should be allowed to demonstrate.

This is not because I vehemently disagree with their views (though I do). I disagree with lots of people, but it doesn't mean they don't have the same rights I enjoy. It is not even because what they essentially advocate is the termination of the existence of the nation they live in: if Taiwan were to democratically decide to unify with China, I wouldn't like it one bit (I'd probably sob for days), but there wouldn't be much I could say about it if the vote was fair and not done under threat. A nation can, in theory, vote to terminate its own existence. I don't even feel this way because their views are so out of line with the vast majority of Taiwanese - they would still have the right to voice them through legal protest.

No - they should not be allowed to demonstrate for a few key reasons, none of which go against the basic rights of freedom of speech and expression that I believe in.

The first is that they are one of the few protest groups whose violence is internal. 

Violence sometimes erupts even at peaceful protests - which the vast majority of protests are in both intention and execution - for what I have observed are three reasons (says this person who is not an expert in social movements or protest). The first is because law enforcement or some other force is pushing back on them in a way that begets violence. Even if your intentions are peaceful, if the police (or some other group) are coming at you with clubs, mace, smoke bombs and water cannons, or trying to keep you from exercising your right to protest through aggressively breaking up groups or fencing them in, it's easy for what is intended to be a peaceful demonstration to get out of control. The second is when an outside group or force - perhaps loosely in agreement with the protesting group, perhaps in opposition to it - intentionally steps in to sow a bit of chaos. This is what often happens in Taiwan and Hong Kong when gangsters, in the employ of other forces, try to incite violence by aggressively bullying peaceful demonstrators. The third is when the injustice set upon an aggrieved community is so great that people just snap. 

None of the reasons above is cause to dismiss the idea of peaceful demonstration.

However, there are also groups who use aggression and violence as a tactic - as above, their violence is internal. Perhaps they do it to create fear among another group (anti-abortion protesters do this, to the point that some women feel unsafe going to a women's health clinic - and that's the point). Perhaps they are in the employ of someone who wants to discredit the idea of protesting at all. Or, perhaps it is simply to anger others into striking back, or simply to get media attention.

The pro-China protests in Taiwan cannot be classified as one where violence is brought in by outside forces. They are one of the ones for whom it is a tactic - most likely for media attention. They need it - there are only, what, five of them? They have been aggressive and will continue to be aggressive because it is intrinsic to their goals to do so, not because law enforcement, gangsters with dubious motives or the righteous anger of deep injustice. They were given several chances to stop the violence and protest peacefully, yet they persisted.

Update: apparently the most recent video of protest violence is not of this group but of another gangster-led pro-unification group. Still, my point stands - they're not going to demonstrate peacefully because nobody will pay attention to them if they do, so it's time to stop them for good. Freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to be violent. They had their chance, and now they need to go.

Even when they are not physically violent, they purposely skirt noise ordinances: there is no way their Musical China Douchemobile is within the legally allowed decibel level for...whatever it is they are doing. Blasting pro-China opera songs? Yet it's difficult to stop them because they are hard to report when they keep driving around. 

Another reason why they ought to be stopped? Because I am no longer convinced that they are simply private citizens with a strongly held opinion demonstrating for what they believe in. I am sure there are a few sincere pro-unificationists running around Taiwan: every society has its extremists. However, I truly don't believe that this group is so sincere. Given how common it is for pro-China, anti-localist and anti-self-determination protesters in Taiwan and Hong Kong to have ties back to gangs who, in turn, have ties back to government (it seems to usually be the Chinese government, but I wouldn't put it past some of the more radical deep blue factions of the Taiwanese government to do this too), it is not crazy to think these guys might also be paid PRC stooges, too. If - and this is a big if, but I think a plausible one - the PRC has something to do with the little show they put on at various high-traffic sites around the city, then that amounts to a foreign government sticking its hands into Taiwanese affairs. Governments do this all the time, but that doesn't mean it should be tolerated.

It also calls into question exactly who the police are listening to when they cordon off or act aggressively toward peaceful protesters (harassing the indigenous rights protesters at night, or isolating peaceful marriage equality demonstrators), but allow this group to start fights unchecked until the mayor steps in (and similarly do little to stop anti-marriage-equality protesters, blue-camp-aligned protesters or actions by groups organized by known gangsters such as White Wolf).

This is quite similar to my reasoning behind supporting laws that do not allow non-residents to participate in protests or demonstrations beyond observation: if we allowed it, thousands of paid Chinese "protesters" would be on the next flights over from China, marching in the streets for unification. Stopping that may mean that some well-meaning people who don't have the right visa can't engage, but I find this a reasonable price to pay.

The final reason why I think it's time to pull the plug on this group is related to the point above. I do not think they are sincere because they don't seem that concerned about actually convincing anybody. That's good in one sense, because if they were, they'd be failing. It raises the question, though, of who exactly they are protesting for. My best guess - and a lot of my friends agree - is that they're doing it to create good photo ops in China. Perhaps for a time they were there to put on a show for Chinese tourists streaming into Taipei 101 - look, we were right, our Chinese brothers across the strait do want to be a part of China, you can see them protesting for it against their evil government right here! - but those are basically gone now. Now, I'd put money on it being done for photo ops that can be strategically placed in Chinese media.

In short, they're not there to convince Taiwanese. They're there to make Taiwanese society seem more divided on the issue than it really is (as it's not actually that divided at all).

Freedom of speech and assembly comes with some basic assumptions: that you are acting of your own accord and not in someone else's shadowy employ; that your motives are sincere and your goals genuine; that you are not a part of some foreign government's strategy and that your intentions are non-violent.

This doesn't mean I think we should ban all pro-China or pro-unification protests. Not even close - as much as I disagree with it, the actual viewpoint being expressed is not the problem. My problem is with this particular group.

While it's difficult to say for sure, my honest opinion is that these specific pro-China protesters meet none of these standards. In such a case, I truly do not believe it violates the basic right to freedom of expression to stop allowing them to demonstrate.

The chances of the Taiwanese government investigating, let alone doing something about this?

Most likely zero. I'd love to be proven wrong.

I suppose we can look forward to them blasting music and pushing us around for awhile yet.


Harrison Chen said...

Hi Jenna,

Longtime reader, first comment. I think the best course, instead of a banning of "pro-China" protesters categorically, would be to actually enforce laws prohibiting their offensive behavior. I feel this way because otherwise, the pro-China people will definitely claim that unification has broad support but that their protests are being suppressed, which as we can see now, is patently untrue. That is, everyone can plainly see exactly who these people are -- a small obnoxious minority.

Secondly, I would disagree that the freedom of assembly requires sincerity. I think this is something we all hope for, but is unenforceable, as it requires people to guess the intentions of others. I find this a seriously slippery slope -- it's a claim that can be made by either side (for example, pro-Trump media make the claim that protesters are paid all the time).

If a foreign government is hiring protesters, I don't think the solution is to categorically ban certain kinds of protest. I think the government would have to run a competent investigation and expose these people, and charge them if there is a law. However, as far as I know, there isn't a law like this even in the United States... my guess is that it's just so wildly ineffective that it's just simply not done or no one cares. The only time I can think of when sedition laws like these get passed is during wartime, and this is also part of why I don't like that idea.

However, I do think things can be done. Specifically, I think the noise ordinances can be enforced. I've always thought that the vans that go around blaring stuff were especially obnoxious, and that goes for both sides. Police officers just need to be instructed to actively pull these vans over -- they are so conspicuous -- and ticket them. It needs to be enforced fairly. This would be a win for everyone.

Regarding violence, while it sucks, it really just makes these unificationists look worse. I hope that those who do engage in acts of violence do get caught and charged. If they aren't, then this can be worked on. Namely, I think violence is always prosecuted after the fact. I don't think we can ban a certain group from assembly just because they "tend to be violent" or tend toward crime. Instead, we have to be diligent about arresting them when they become violent or when they do commit a crime.

Regarding flying protesters, I'm not sure I buy this, but if China wants to buy a plane ticket for each protester, I welcome them to throw their money away. They'll never be able to fly in enough people to come close to, say, the numbers in the Sunflower protests.

Anyway, thanks for the writing!

Jenna Cody said...

Yes, those are good points.

I don't actually necessarily expect people to agree with me, I'm basically trying to make a case that is not quite Devil's advocate but not quite something I think could actually be done.

I would like to point out that I specifically said we should *not* ban pro-China protesters categorically. This group is the problem, not the idea of being pro-China. I want something to be done about this particular group.

The two things I would say is that I don't welcome foreign governments wasting their money by paying protesters - I don't welcome foreign involvement at all (though I strongly believe residents should have the right of assembly).

Secondly, that the violence doesn't work against them, because they're not actually trying to convince Taiwanese. Their being aggressive and violent isn't going to get into the photo ops and videos that are likely created for viewers in China: those will be highly edited to make the issue seem divisive and complicated in Taiwan when it's really not. The same goes for how obvious it is to us that this is a small, obnoxious minority. When that footage makes it to China, it will be edited so that they don't look as small or obnoxious.

So being violent or aggressive doesn't actually hurt them, because their goal is not for Taiwanese to see them a certain way. It's for Chinese to see what they're doing and be a patriotic rallying cry for them to take back Taiwan.

But, I agree completely on enforcing existing laws, and that it's basically impossible to insist on sincerity in protests (though it is a fundamental assumption of the right to protest). Yet we can likely prove a lack of sincerity in this particular case because I'd put money on their being a paper trail between the CCP and this group, though perhaps a convoluted one, blocked by many a gangster. Anyway, if the laws were enforced, their activities would be curtailed so much that "banning" them would be a moot point. There seems to be some effort these days to do that, but I'm not sure it's enough. I haven't heard the Douchemobile in awhile though.

Harrison Chen said...

Yeah, I was being kind of glib about welcoming paid protesters. If it was uncovered that this was happening, I would expect the government to put a stop to it, mostly by cutting off the funding channels. And though I can't read intentions, I agree with your point that their actions are most effective not in shaping Taiwanese public opinion, but rather Chinese public opinion and possibly international public opinion (though not so much the latter). In particular, it might help the government convince people to stand by their government against Taiwan. One other worry I have had is that China might try to paint Taiwan as a sort of Crimea to international audiences, possibly by pumping up these sorts of displays. I don't think this is easy, though.

I suppose my source of optimism in the latter case is that after the Tsai-Trump call, though there was an initial media reaction that was truly terrible, some outlets did make up for it later. For example, The Atlantic first ran a horrible horrible interview with a CCP mouthpiece, and later published a confused and senseless rant by a Chinese expat in the U.S. (I was really mad about both of these). But then, they posted numerous reader responses to the rant which, in my opinion, presented well-reasoned defenses of Taiwan's right to self-determination, and pointed out the obvious incongruities in the expat's argument. I suppose it felt a little bit like, right there, the truth won in the end, even though the media still barely makes an attempt to seek out Taiwanese voices when they write about Taiwan, at least (and maybe this is a perception bias) that they have since become a little more "aware."

Anyway, thanks again for continuing to write, and sorry that my first comment was to make an argument -- it's a bad habit of mine. The next one will not be