The following article was published in the Australian Greens magazine “Green” March 2013 edition. The author, Ms. Jenny Nutter, worked for former Australian Greens Leader Bob Brown and is currently engaged as Office Manager for Senator Christine Milne in Canberra. Jenny visited the Taiwan Green Party on a political study tour.
WHAT do you think of when you hear of Taiwan? Cheap goods which have ‘made in Taiwan’ stamped on the bottom? Or perhaps you know Taiwan as one of the largest manufacturers and exporters of solar panels?
Taiwan has experienced rapid economic development over the past few decades with an average economic growth rate of 7.7% recorded between 1953 and 2009. It is an island about half the size of Tasmania, but has a high population density with 23.2 million people. Politics in Taiwan is dominated by the question of its relationship with China and, from an outsider’s perspective it seemed that the majority of people’s political allegiances depended upon whether they were in favour of independence from China, reunification or, as is the case for almost 60% of people, a preference to maintain the status quo.
During a political study tour to Taiwan in late 2012, many of the meetings focussed on this relationship with China and the ‘Taiwan Experience’, that is, the cause of the country’s rapid economic development and its subsequent rise in democracy. And despite a
lot of talk I was only to experience this ‘democracy’ in action on my last day, only a few minutes after meeting up with some members of the Green Party of Taiwan.
Although they have no Members of Parliament the Green Party of Taiwan is gaining popularity, particularly with young people, and achieved over 220,000 (or 1.7%) of the vote in the last election. Keli Yen from the Green Party of Taiwan told me that this result surprised a lot of people but hoped that it will inspire more of the population to vote Green next time. Keli also explained to me the challenge of being a relatively new party; needing to increase their membership and at the same time finding the resources to pay their one part-time staffer and rent for their small office space.
On our way to lunch we happened upon a protest outside of the Ministry for Environment. The protest was organised by a farming community concerned about pollution of the Siaoli River by factories from an industrial park that hosts several of Taiwan’s ‘star companies’ that produce computer components. The Environmental Protection Administration had conducted an environmental impact assessment of the factory and undertaken several water quality assessments from the river and after finding that the factory was in breach of Environmental Protection Laws it was instructed to change its behaviour within a required timeframe. The factory had been unable (or unwilling) to make the necessary changes to their waste management, and so the Ministry had given them an extension of time. That deadline too had passed and there still was no change from the factory, so the farmers arrived on the doorsteps of the Ministry of Environment to protest. Their signs read ‘Give me back a clean Siaoli River’.
More than the story behind the protest, I found the legal and political implications interesting after my 10 days of learning about Taiwan’s newfound democracy. Firstly, it was impressive that there was a very active civil society; the people were out on the streets protesting about a lack of government action and enforcement and there was a good media turnout. Excellent. However, it was concerning that this was countered by a huge police presence. At a protest of 150 people, there were about 50 police officers – a bit of an overreaction. Similarly, it seemed extreme after receiving notice of the protest the police had erected a huge barbed wire barrier around the front of the building; a very hostile reaction to a peaceful protest. Finally, I was told by my hosts from the Green Party of Taiwan that there are strict Freedom of Assembly rules in Taiwan. A group has to apply for a permit from the government which is often refused or, if approved, has numerous restrictions. This group of farmers had been granted a permit; however a police officer waved a sign at the crowd warning them that during an illegal assembly people could be arrested and that they should consider this a warning. One of the protest leaders gave a rousing speech, and the protestors produced water balloons which they threw at the ministry building chanting ‘take back your dirty water, give me back a clean Siaoli River.’ And after this, without any consultation or due process that we could see, the police officers announced that the farmer’s permit had been revoked because they had violated the criminal code by desecration of public property and were now in breach of assembly laws.
So, although it was encouraging to see an active and enthusiastic civil society participating in a well organised, peaceful environmental protest while I was in Taiwan, it was disheartening that the government did not put their words and legislation into action.
This statement probably rings true in many countries which have ‘embraced democracy’ and certainly made me think of a few examples close to home.
The Green Party of Taiwan cited getting the environment on the government’s agenda as one of its greatest successes so far and I was pleased to hear that the government had legislation in place to help protect it. However, just like in Australia, legislation is meaningless without the will to enforce it. Certainly there is a lot of talk about ‘being green’ and protecting the environment in Taiwan. For example, Taipei 101 (previously the world’s tallest building) is now promoted as the World’s Tallest Green Building based on small things like its participation in Earth Hour every year, through to larger projects like its recycled water system on the roof that meets 30% of the building’s water needs and its characteristic blue- green double paned and glazed low–e glass curtain walls which block external heat by 50%.
It’s fantastic that Taiwan’s activists are taking steps to really raise awareness about environmental issues and are taking steps to start achieving this. It occurred to me though that if Taiwan, which has undergone such recent and rapid development, is so active in promoting a green agenda, why are countries like Australia (who has been talking the talk for decades now) not taking more action?
All opinions are the author’s own and do not represent the views of her employer. Many thanks to Keli Yen, Robin Winkler and Hansheng Pan, from the Green Party of Taiwan who assisted with translation and background information on the protest.
Visit the taiwanese green party website: www.greenparty.org.tw/index.php/en
Taipei 101 was awarded a certificate in leadership in energy and environmental design (leed) in 2011. www.taipei101greenon.com
The green party of taiwan would love to hear from any members who can share advice and inspiration about the early days of the australian greens. [email protected]
The full magazine can be downloaded at: http://greens.org.au/system/files/private/Green_march2013_singlepgs%20final.pdf
03/20/2013 – 11:10