What you need to know
Thousands took to the streets in front of a strong showing of Taiwanese politicians, but will it be enough to instigate meaningful policy change?
A boisterous and enthusiastic crowd of thousands braved a cold, blustery day to take a stand against air pollution, specifically coal. Fronted by medical professional groups and a girls marching band with a clear fondness for the band Queen, the festive crowd snaked for blocks through the streets of Taichung chanting slogans and waving banners. As the afternoon came to a close, a crowd formed the words “No Coal” and a shape of Taiwan, making for a dramatic aerial shot.
The impressively professional event was primarily organized by NGOs, including the Action Coalition for Healthy Air (ACT), formed by a group of doctors at Changhua Christian Hospital, and 350.org, which campaigns against fossil fuels. A press release issued prior to the event stated, “Even though the national Executive Yuan has committed to providing solutions to the business elite ... [there] is still a long way to go to pursue good heart, good lungs, good brains, good health and good atmosphere for all." Dr. Yeh, the chairman of ACT stressed that "anti-air pollution is anti-imperialism, anti-countercivilian, anti-centralization.”
The protests followed press conferences last week in Taipei organized by 350.org and the Green Citizens Action Alliance demanded that the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) implement a national strategy guiding the reduction of coal as a power source.
On the day, the organizers issued four specific demands:
1. Move the Executive Yuan to the south. Move the MOEA to the south. Move the EPA to the south.
2. Taichung Power Plant must reduce the use of bituminous coal by 20 percent at once (by Jan. 26, 2018) and 10 percent every year thereafter.
3. Top 30 stationary pollution sources must reduce output by 20 percent by the end of 2018.
4. The current air quality status must be added to the Taiwan Air Quality Monitoring Network at once.
So why was this rally held in Taichung (along with a sister rally in Kaohsiung the same day)? Power production is heavily weighted towards the center and south of Taiwan, but supplies the north – creating a situation whereby the biggest beneficiaries of the power do not pay the price in terms of air pollution, a situation that is growing increasingly unacceptable to local people. The organizers hope the national Executive Yuan, the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) and the Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) will move south, which would require these officials to personally experience the pollution not as numbers on paper, but as a fact of daily life.
What was until earlier this year the largest coal-fired power plant in the world, the state-owned Taipower-run Taichung Power Plant, is by a huge margin Taiwan’s largest single emitter of air pollution – making it a major target for protesters. However, ramping down coal usage could present some challenges in keeping the lights on, especially as liquid natural gas terminals are not yet able to handle the consequent increased demand. Reducing power also runs counter to the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) bold plans for an industrial regrowth in Central Taiwan, and could be difficult with major (often power-hungry) investments underway by companies like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co and Micron Technology.
Was the rally a success? Organizationally, it was very successful.
Politically, it also succeeded to a certain degree. The issue of pollution has become “the” issue in central Taiwan, so much so that it threatens the Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) recent hard-won dominance of the region. In terms of attracting politician participation, it was very successful — the DPP, the Chinese Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang, KMT) and the New Power Party (NPP) all sent party heavyweights. Sensing they may gain traction on the issue against the incumbent DPP, the KMT was particularly well represented, with ex-Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌), Taipei lawmaker and possible KMT mayoral candidate Chiang Wan-an (蔣萬安), legislators and Taichung mayoral candidates Johnny Chiang Chi-cheng (蔣孝嚴) and Lu Hsiu-yan (李彥秀), Nantou County Commissioner Lin Ming-chen (林明溱) among others all making an appearance. Taichung Mayor Lin Chia-lung (林佳龍) of the DPP also made an appearance.
Did participating in the rally make an impression on these politicians? Judging by the number of politicians who disregarded the rally organizers call to not wear campaign-style political vests, then probably not. Two key politicians did show respect to the organizers’ wishes by not wearing campaign clothing, Taichung Mayor Lin in a city government windbreaker and KMT candidate for mayor, Legislator Johnny Chiang Chi-cheng in a sweatshirt with the slogan “battle of the year”.
The mayor commented that he supports the demands of the rally, and said he thought that the presence of both major parties showed Taiwan is improving. When asked if coal usage could be significantly cut in the near future, Chiang told The News Lens, “You cannot maintain the power supply by losing, or hurting people’s health; I think that is the bottom line. In order to maintain the power supply, the government should try to evaluate many different power sources and try to rearrange [them] to reduce the use of coal.” He also commented that the politicians in attendance should take action after the rally.
The key test for the success for the event, however, was how the turnout will impact on politicians’ sense of how deeply the issue resonates with voters. In terms of sheer numbers, it is hard to say. Organizers put the turnout at over 10,000, while the police put the number at “exceeding 3,000.” Regardless of the exact number, the rally was very large by Taichung standards.
Unsurprisingly, polling suggests pollution is unpopular with local voters – but it is unclear how deep that runs, especially if the lights go out in a blackout. Was it enough to signal to the politicians that this is a core issue for local citizens? The numbers certainly signaled that there is a large group of people who are vocal and care strongly about the issue. This rally was probably not large enough to definitively answer if this is a core issue for the broader public, but the higher turnout versus previous rallies clearly indicates that it is an issue of growing importance.
SEE ALSO: Taiwan Protesters Gear Up to Kibosh Coal
TNL Editor: David Green