Protests against planned labor law changes by the administration of President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) that took place Dec. 23 may be historic for Taiwanese labor and mark the start a new era of labor militancy. There probably has not been a protest as dramatic or intense since the Sunflower Movement, even if protests ended with a number of arrests.

Protests began at noon in front of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) headquarters and went on until well past midnight. Three hours of speeches and performances took place from noon until 3 p.m. in front of DPP headquarters, at which point, according to organizers, demonstrators numbered over 10,000. Of particular note were the high number of student participants and the numerous, creative artworks that were featured, including an art installation mocking Tsai Ing-wen, a satire of the Liberty Times, and Buddhist-themed performance art mocking comments by Premier William Lai (賴清德) that underpaid workers should see karmic merit for good deeds as making up for their low salaries.

There was pressure for a larger turnout this time in Taipei, because despite previous protests in the capital only drawing a few hundred people, demonstrations in Kaohsiung earlier this month attracted an estimated 30,000 individuals. Planned changes to the Labor Standards Act are seen as undoing 30 years of labor reforms in Taiwan, and the demonstrators in Taipei demanded the amendments be withdrawn. Among other things, the changes are seen as significantly adding to the number of overtime hours that Taiwanese workers will be made to work, when they already work the world’s sixth-longest hours, according to Taiwan government and Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development statistics.

After demonstrators set off on what was a planned march to the Legislative Yuan at 3 p.m., police quickly declared the gathering to be illegal under the Parade and Assembly Act. Police claimed that this was because demonstrators veered off of the path stated in their application for a permit to demonstrate, but organizers claim that police deliberately set up the route of the protest so that it could be declared illegal.

Credit: Brian Hioe
Migrant worker groups protest their lack of protections under existing and proposed labor laws.

In any case, police may have feared demonstrators attempting to charge the Legislative Yuan, as has taken place in the past. As a result, demonstrators were diverted west in the direction of Taipei Main Station, before doubling back in the direction of the Legislative Yuan and settling on an occupation of the intersection of Zhongxiao West and Zhongshan North and South Road. A similar street occupation took place on Dec. 4, but involved only a few hundred people.

A further escalation occured at around 6 p.m. with an attempt to storm the Executive Yuan, an appropriate target because Premier Lai is blamed for the labor reforms, and because it is directly next to the intersection of Zhongxiao West and Zhongshan North Road. This did not succeed in forcing its way past police, with demonstrators being pushed back amid some injuries.

Credit: Brian Hioe

Workers rights' activists direct protesters from a truck amid attempts to storm the Executive Yuan.

Noted labor activist Mao Chen-fei (毛振飛), who has led many of the attempts to storm government buildings in recent times, attempted to declare the protest over following the failure of the Executive Yuan charge. This provoked backlash from demonstrators, leading Mao to insist angrily that by participating in the demonstration, they had agreed to the authority of the demonstrations’ organizers.

As such, demonstrators lashed out verbally at Mao and demanded further action. Eventually a compromise was struck, with organizers stating that anyone who wanted to leave could do so, but that they themselves would stick it out until the bitter end with anyone who wanted to stay. , Mao subsequently took a backseat for further actions, though he remained on-site throughout.

This backlash against the protest organizers is ironic, seeing as many of them had been highly critical of the centralized leadership of the Sunflower Movement, and demanded greater participatory democracy in decision-making for the movement. Yet while labor groups and other overtly radical Left activists were confined to the periphery of the Sunflower Movement, organizing primarily through the “Untouchables’ Liberation Area” (賤民解放區) splinter group, they have taken center-stage during current labor protests and unexpectedly found themselves contending with some of the same criticisms that they themselves had made of the Sunflower Movement leadership. These issues may generally return to the nature of leadership in movements, with it often becoming a controversial issue as to how to balance democracy with the ability to make decisive leadership calls in response to police actions or other threats.

In any case, although some refused to leave after Mao’s call for a withdrawal, many did depart, thinning the numbers of demonstrators dramatically over the following four hours to only several hundred people, mostly youth activists, or young members of labor unions. Around 9 p.m., police moved to surround those remaining, presumably with the aim of clearing them. However, this had the effect of spurring further action, prompting a sudden march towards Taipei Main Station and an attempt to block all three lanes of traffic of Zhongxiao West Road in front of the station. This had last occurred in late April 2014 after the end of the Sunflower Movement during an attempted street occupation against nuclear energy, following which occupiers were finally cleared using water cannons.

Credit: Brian Hioe
Demonstrators dash away from police.

But lacking the numbers to control all three lanes of traffic and with police closing in, demonstrators instead started to march in the direction of the 228 Memorial Park on Gongyuan Road, winding through the narrow streets south of Taipei Main Station which are the site of a number of cram schools. Police moved with astonishing speed to set up barriers in order to try and surround them, leading to a cat-and-mouse game that led to the about 500 remaining demonstrators moving aimlessly west until they reached Ximending.

Subsequently, demonstrators attempted to occupy the intersection of Zhonghua Road and Chengdu Road much as they had occupied the intersection of Zhongxiao West and Zhongshan North and South Road. But police forced them unexpectedly into the streets of the Ximending shopping district, a rare occurrence for social protests in Taiwan, seeing as it was unlikely that police would be able to put up barriers in the crowded commercial district. This dramatic disruption of rampant commercialism by labor groups likely helped spread word of the demonstration, seeing as many weekend shoppers in Ximending took to filming and livestreaming it.

Credit: Brian Hioe
Shoppers in Ximending have their last minute Christmas shopping disrupted.

After abortive attempts to start a discussion about what to do next, demonstrators moved to Citizens’ Boulevard, one of Taipei’s largest and most crucial roads, to occupy the intersection with Tacheng Street. Three options were then discussed: attempt to occupy Taipei Main Station, return to the intersection of Zhongxiao West Road and Zhongshan North Road, or return to DPP headquarters. Attempting to occupy Taipei Main Station was ruled out because reports suggested it was already full of police, so the decision was haphazardly made by vote to return to Zhongxiao West Road and Zhongshan North Road.

This may have been the wrong decision. Zhongxiao West Road and Zhongshan North Road was also full of police, who quickly surrounded demonstrators. Protesters discovered a hole in the encirclement through a narrow set of alleyways and dispersed through them, with plans to meet outside of Taipei Main Station. Three individuals were picked off by police and arrested in these alleyways, but the group regathered outside the east entrance of Taipei Main Station.

However, the choice of Taipei Main Station as a regrouping point was also a bad one. When demonstrators attempted to sit down again to discuss further steps, including whether they were out of options and should disperse, seeing as the protest had gone on for over 10hours at that point and people were tired, they were quickly surrounded by 200 to 300 police officers.

When riot police tried to force some demonstrators who had entered Taipei Main Station outside, the response was to push back, and some called for taking the subways as an escape route. But this was not successful and protesters were surrounded and dispersed between several concentric police encirclements. Demonstrators were subsequently kettled by police for over an hour, with officers refusing to engage in dialogue, and refusing to state the legal grounds for preventing the freedom of movement of citizens. This was something that demonstrators claimed to be illegal and unconstitutional. Nevertheless, this was where the protest finally ended, with police dragging away protesters one by one until four police buses were filled by around 1:00 a.m.

Around 80 percent of participants were arrested. The conclusion of today’s protest, then, reminds of the last round of labor protests, in which those that refused to leave into the deep night ended up being surrounded by police on Ketagalan Boulevard and dragged away onto police buses one by one, in the course of which an individual’s head was rammed into the glass of the bus and the glass cracked.

Brian Hioe
Protesters assess their options outside of Taipei Main Station.

While it remains to be seen how widely media will report on such events, and how this will be perceived by society, the demonstration was of an intensity which has not been seen since the Sunflower Movement. Apart from a failed attempt at a building occupation, three occupations of major intersections took place, and the protest wound its way through a large part of Taipei which does not normally see protests.

Either way, even if Premier Lai shrugged off the protests when asked about it in public comments, the Tsai administration should probably realize that protests around the issue will not go away anytime soon. Prominent Sunflower Movement activists were among those who participated in today’s demonstration, including Chen Wei-Ting and Wang Yi-Kai, who livestreamed the action, though they did not participate in the decision-making. Beyond Chen and Wang, a large number of the youth activists present have been active since the Sunflower Movement.

The intensity of the protest can be explained easily as originating from the willingness of Taiwanese youth activists to take risks even if this means conflict with police, as observed in the past during the Sunflower Movement. The Tsai administration should know that labor rights are a core issue for post-Sunflower Movement youth activists, in the same way as anti-media monopoly movement or protests against forced land evictions in Dapu, Miaoli, have been important in the past.

As such, demonstrations will continue and likely escalate until youth activists see a response from the Tsai administration. And seeing as Taiwanese youth activists did not, in fact, receive much media attention for the causes they participated in up until the Sunflower Movement, with much their actions being largely left out of mainstream media, they will likely not be discouraged by any initial lack of media attention. In this respect, Taiwanese youth activists will likely continue to demonstrate until they see the social responses they hope to see from Taiwanese society, as well.

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The original post was published on New Bloom here.

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TNL Editor: David Green