Physical assaults on members of the press and law-enforcement officials, and the presence of a protest leader at an event in Beijing in 2016, have given a very bad reputation to a movement that opposes the Tsai administration’s efforts to reform an unsustainable pension program.
Protests against pension reform took a particularly violent turn on Wednesday as groups physically assaulted journalists and law enforcement officials around the Legislative Yuan in Taipei.
An estimated 2,000 people took part in the protest, organized by the 800 Heroes, a veterans group that has spearheaded efforts to oppose long-needed reforms to the pension program for civil servants, members of the armed forces and law enforcement.
The groups, which also include the Blue Sky Alliance and the pro-unification China Unification Promotion Party (CUPP), have used physical violence in the past to threaten legislators from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), resulting in injuries.
During a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and National Defence Committee inside the legislature on Wednesday to discuss pension reform, the protesters stormed the gates around parliament and turned the violence up a notch. As of last count, 84 police and 21 journalists had sustained injuries during the altercations.
According to several independent reports, protesters would surround members of the press, ask to see their identification, and upon confirming that they indeed were journalists would assault them and break their camera equipment. It did not matter which media organization the reporters were from. Even reporters from CtiTV, a stridently anti-Tsai Ing-wen administration outlet which has been sympathetic to the anti-pension reform movement, were attacked. (The only precedent for such acts targeting the media were anti-same-sex marriage protests, during which a number of journalists from select media outlets seen to be in support of same-sex marriage were repeatedly blocked access to protest sites; in very few instances, however, did such acts result in physical injuries.) On several occasions as protesters were assaulting members of the press, shouts of “fake news!” and “kill him!” were heard. One journalist was splashed with urine. Media organizations have called on journalists to avoid bringing camera tripods to the site, as those have allegedly been used by protesters to attack members of the press.
Reporters from the Apple Daily, China Times, Taiwan People News, Central News Agency, Up Media, Next TV, ETtoday, Formosa TV, CtiTV and SET TV were among those injured.
Protesters also occupied National Taiwan University’s Children Hospital across the street from the Legislative Yuan, taking over the main entrance and lobby, and harassing medical staff.
A large number of protesters involved in the violence wore sunglasses, caps, hats, scarves and other apparel making it difficult to identify them.
Meanwhile, protesters also singled out police officers at the site for physical attacks. Several law enforcement officers were punched, kicked, trampled, choked, dragged on the ground and even tied up. Reports showed several head injuries. Protesters threw bricks, used pepper spray and fire extinguishers, while some were seen carrying chains and box cutters. According to several reports, a female protest organizer “speaking in a strange accent” helped identify commanding officers at the site and directed protesters to attack them. Police, which responded with the highest restraint, arrested a total of 57 protesters.
Small contingents from the Blue Sky Alliance and the CUPP were again present during Wednesday’s protest. Earlier this year, members of the Blue Sky Alliance and CUPP physically clashed during a protest outside parliament, with the former — aged, conservative Republic of China (ROC) champions — complaining about the high presence of People’s Republic of China (PRC) flags.
Over the past decade I have documented in situ close to 200 protests in Taiwan, including the large-scale rallies opposing the first visit of then-Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) chief Chen Yunlin in November 2008, several protests at the Legislative Yuan led by the Black Island Nation Youth Alliance, protests by laid-off workers or evicted families, and of course the three-week Sunflower occupation in March-April 2014. Never, with the exception of anti-same-sex marriage groups, were there attempts top prevent me, as a journalist, from doing my work. Not even during the CUPP protest on April 1, 2014, when pro-China groups threatened to cleanse the legislature of the student-led Sunflowers. Never were members of the press singled out, let alone physically assaulted, by civil society. When Sunflower activists mocked a CtiTV reporter during the occupation of the Legislative Yuan, hampering the journalist’s ability to do his job, the actors were severely criticized and such behavior stopped. And while protests sometimes got a little rowdy, never did I see protesters attack police officers by punching, kicking or choking them (this much cannot be said of riot police violence against unarmed activists outside the Executive Yuan on the night of March 23-24, 2014). At most, protesters and law enforcement would go through the motions of pushing against each other, body against PVC shield, and release some energy before the situation calmed down again. Again, not once did I ever see protesters target police officers other than verbally, including some much-reviled C.O.s at the site.
I have never feared for my safety at any protest in Taiwan, not even when I found myself surrounded by pro-unification gangsters. I would have felt threatened on Wednesday.
Former Kuomintang (KMT) chairperson Hung Hsiu-chu, who briefly showed up at the site on Wednesday to cheer the protesters, told police not to abuse the protesters, a demand that, in light of subsequent developments and the systematic violence against law enforcement officers, was rather ironic.
By lending their support to the movement for their own political aims, members of the KMT like Hung and others may also have helped legitimizing a group that, through its contemptible actions, has demonstrated it is unsuited to be counted as a civic organization in a democracy.
800 Heroes organizers claimed on Wednesday that they had nothing to do with the acts of violence perpetrated during the protests and maintained that those were committed by outsiders who had penetrated the group. Luo Jui-ta, chief executive of 800 Heroes, has announced a temporary halt to the protests.
Society has been highly critical of the group’s actions, with many commentators stating that attacks on the press and law enforcement, as well as the disturbances caused by their occupation of a children’s hospital, was not the conduct of military officers. Others pointed out the irony of protesters claiming to be fighting to protect the rights of police officers … assaulting police. By lending their support to the movement for their own political aims, members of the KMT like Hung and others may also have helped legitimizing a group that, through its contemptible actions, has demonstrated it is unsuited to be counted as a civic organization in a democracy. For its part, the group has deplored what it calls “double standards” in the government’s response to their protest and its handling of the Sunflower Movement, which, as I pointed out earlier, never threatened journalists or members of the police force. The 800 Heroes group has also made an appeal to the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), the de facto U.S. embassy in Taiwan, asking the U.S. government to investigate the pension reform issue.
Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who in recent months has come under criticism for allowing pro-China, CUPP-linked groups to continue their activities while clamping down on pro-independence activists, has deplored the violence but has not revoked the group’s permit to protest.
As has long been suspected, there is also mounting evidence of a China angle to the anti-pension reform movement.
It has already been documented that disinformation originating in China has been used to spread lies about the government’s intended reforms (e.g., that the cuts would be retroactive — a lie that is still repeated by KMT legislators). It is also known that retired Lieutenant General Wu Sz-huai (b. 1952), the deputy chief executive of the organization who doubles as its spokesman, was seen at an event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November 2016 at an event commemorating Sun Yat-sen’s 150th anniversary, during which Chinese President Xi Jinping warned against “separatism.” According to the National Security Bureau, Wu was accompanied by five retired generals, 11 retired lieutenant generals and 16 retired major generals. Yok Mu-ming, chairman of the pro-unification (and Chinese Communist Party proxy) New Party, was also present at the commemoration.
During Wednesday’s protest, Wu was seen wearing a red baseball cap on which the characters 我是中國人 (“I am Chinese”) were printed. Groups of protesters were also overheard singing Red Guards anthems from the Cultural Revolution.
It was almost inevitable that Beijing and its United Front apparatus would seek to exploit discontent over President Tsai’s pension reform program to penetrate Taiwan’s civil society and cause social disturbances. Retired generals have long been the targets of UFW campaigns to demoralize Taiwan and cause a schism between the civilian leadership and the armed forces. Now the prospect of seeing some of their (high) pensions being cut may have made a number of retired generals more amenable to recruitment — an alliance of convenience, in most cases — by the Chinese Communist Party. Consequently, there is a high likelihood that the movement, which has every right to express its apprehensions and opposition to pension reform, has been hijacked by the UFW apparatus for objectives that have little to do with pension reform.
There is a high likelihood that the movement, which has every right to express its apprehensions and opposition to pension reform, has been hijacked by the UFW apparatus for objectives that have little to do with pension reform.
Besides providing “evidence” to discredit democracy as “messy” and “chaotic,” social disturbance could, if it escalates, compel Beijing authorities to take action to save “Chinese compatriots” in Taiwan. After all, Article 8 of the so-called “Anti-Secession Law” of 2005 states that the Chinese military may be forced to intervene in the case of “major incidents” in Taiwan, including “large-scale riots.” (One precedent for such action is Russia’s intervention in Crimea and the Donbas region in Ukraine.) To avoid falling into the trap of escalating cycles of violence that could lead to “major unrest” (as defined by Beijing), Taiwanese authorities will need to be highly cautious in how they respond to the violent acts perpetrated by the anti-pension reform groups.
Taiwan’s NSB is said to be investigating the groups involved in the protests as well as their sources of funding.