On March 26, 2005, the streets of Taipei were
choked with people from all over the island, citizens of a nation still known
legally as the Republic of China (ROC), citizens who'd gathered in force to
protest a new anti-secession law that had just been passed by the much larger
People's Republic of China (PRC) less than 100 miles to the west. The wording
of the law was purposely obtuse, but the general gist was crystal clear: any
declaration of independence by the government of the ROC would lead to a swift
retaliation by the growing military of the PRC.
Were there a million people, as ROC president Chen Shui-bian had hoped for
for? Or was the number less, maybe half? Only people in helicopters or tourists
gawking from the observation deck of the Taipei 101 observatory or the now low-rent
Shingong tower can really guess. But there certainly were a lot of people, both
dyed-in-the-wool independence supporters and ordinary Taiwanese who just don't
much like the menacing signals sent out by the Chinese Communist Party's anti-secession
law (referred to by some in these parts as the "Anschluss
The march began in a strange wagon wheel formation, with ten massive lines
of people wearing green hats, blowing air horns, and waving banners starting
at different points in the city and marching toward the presidential palace,
where Chen Shui-bian, both ROC president and precariously perched high priest
of "all that is good and pro-Taiwan, stopping just short of actually declaring
independence" would either speak or not. There was some confusion over this,
but all were certain that he would sing. A-bian
enjoys singing, and the buzz in the papers was that he'd written a song especially
for the occasion based loosely on Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind."
The march began from 10 different points in Taipei city, with each point representing
one of the clauses in China's anti-secession law, and the line moved in toward
the presidential palace. On each spoke, the numbers could have easily been in
the high tens of thousands or more, making the total number on this island of
20-some million impressive regardless of whether it actually reached one million.
Many marchers waved flags with images of the leaf-shaped island. Other groups
wielded banners reading "Taiwan is not China" and "Germany 1935 = China 2005."
Some considered even this too subtle, choosing to voice themselves with the
less eloquent but decidedly more direct message "F*ck China."
But was this march really about declaring independence, an ominous move for
all parties involved, maybe even the entire world? There were less-than-subtle
clues to be found in the languages chosen by the sign-waving mob. Though the
majority of signs were written in Chinese, every third or fourth sign was in
English, with a few in French or some other language of the European Union.
Indeed, much of the rhetoric of the rally seemed to be as much about making
Taiwan's collective voice heard as sending any real message to China. Barred
from most international decision-making bodies and abandoned diplomatically
by all but a handful of countries, the Taiwanese have a powerful desire to be
recognized, and certainly the new anti-secession law gives the island ample
cause to expect support from any nation paying lip service to the notion of
And what about this new law? Is it a step further in the direction of war,
or is it, as Kyle Pearson, a long-time Taiwan-based expat argues, quite the
opposite: a canny ploy by moderates in Beijing to appease the Chinese militarists
by setting down as an absolute red line any declaration of independence, thus
allowing the status quo to continue while helping to isolate the hardline independence
advocates in Taiwan? And if Chen knows this, might the whole march just be a
convenient steam-release to appease his own base?
In other words, despite the current tension, might cooler heads prevail?
The afternoon before the march, I'd been talking about just this with a fairly
high ranking member of the Democratic
Progressive Party's inner circle, a young political operative who asked
not to be identified by name. I'd been introduced to "Mr. Wu" through a friend
as an American journalist. This fact alone would have made most in the pro-independence
camp, who (naively or not) see America as a stalwart defender of democracy feel
quite comfortable about launching into the usual pro-independence spiel; Communist
China is the great oppressor, democratic Taiwan the victim. So I was quite surprised
when Mr. Wu started our conversation by telling me about a trip he'd just taken
to Shanghai, comparing his last trip to others he'd taken during his university
years and talking about how rapidly Chinese society was changing. When the discussion
finally turned to politics, Mr. Wu was the picture of moderation. While neither
confirming nor denying the protest-as-steam-valve theory, he said he felt that
both the passing of the law by Beijing and the timing of the march in Taipei
were largely political, meant more for domestic and international consumption
than to indicate any real change in policy. He'd traveled around China and had
had a good time, and he felt that the resolution of the situation across the
straits – whatever that resolution might be – could and should wait another
generation, with neither side making any potentially foolish moves.
Quite a different tone was present on the streets the next day as DPP trucks
whipped the crowd into anti-mainland chanting. When the spokes converged, president
Chen, who'd marched on one of the main spokes surrounded by police, appeared
larger than life on a huge monitor erected for the occasion. As promised, he
made no speech, but did join chants of "What do we want from China? Peace!"
before leading the assembled throng in a song praising Taiwanese identity.
As the rally wound down, the masses dispersed in all directions, high on the
buzz that good democracy ought to give those who take the time to participate.
Snapping pictures in the post-rally glow, I – a conspicuous foreigner in a sea
of green-clad Taiwanese faces – was thanked loudly and boisterously by no fewer
than 30 people.
"Thank you for coming to Taiwan! Tell the people in your country who we are!"
Heading back to my hotel, it occurred to me that this may well have been the
rally's main purpose; a public shout from the collective voice of Taiwan, a
mass gathering to affirm to China, the world, and, most importantly, themselves
that they refuse to be bullied in silence, damn the torpedoes.