Hundreds of Taiwanese activists stormed the Ministry of Education building in Taipei after midnight on July 31 as anger mounted over the ministry’s efforts to implement controversial changes to high school curriculum guidelines and the death by suicide of one of the young activists the previous day.
The occupation – one of several direct actions in the past two years – occurs after months of snowballing protests over efforts by the government to make “minor” changes to curriculum guidelines. Critics say the process lacked transparency and that the new Sino-centric content imposed by the guidelines distorts history and whitewashes the authoritarian period in the nation’s history. The dissidents also maintain that members of the 10-person committee in charge of the “minor” adjustments, set up by then-minister of education Chiang Wei-ling in January 2014, are not suited to handle the matter. Chief among them is convener Wang Hsiao-po, a vice chairman of the Alliance for the Reunification of China.
Less than a month after its creation, the committee announced that the “minor” adjustments, which are an interim measure before more substantial changes are made in 2018, were complete. In response, the Taiwan Human Rights Association filed, and won, a lawsuit against the ministry, forcing the latter to release additional information about the process. Legislators from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) also filed a lawsuit against the ministry for “document forgery.”
Despite the legal action, the ministry pressed ahead and intended the new guidelines to come into force on August 1.
As the deadline approached and following a series of fruitless meetings between ministry officials and student organizations nationwide, high school activists launched a brief occupation of the Ministry of Education on July 23. As a result, 33 persons were arrested, including 24 students – 11 of them under the age of 18. Three journalists were also detained, leading to accusations that police were once again trying to muzzle the press following similar incidents in recent years. Echoing language it had used during last year’s Sunflower Movement occupation of the Legislative Yuan, the KMT accused the DPP and its presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen – whom they likened to ISIS, Mao Zedong, and a “gangster” – of orchestrating the protests.
Although the DPP has provided some monetary assistance to the activists (receipts show that it helped them buy black umbrellas), allegations that the party has been using or manipulating young activists do not stand up to scrutiny. As with previous movements, civil society has acted largely independently and has kept political parties at arms’ length. This, however, has not prevented the KMT, which faces the prospects of defeat in the January 2016 general elections, of seeking to politicize the controversy and to tarnish Tsai’s reputation.
Unfazed, the Ministry of Education filed a lawsuit against the young activists for illegal entry and destruction of property (stacking chairs to barricade themselves inside Minister of Education Wu Se-hwa’s office). After hinting that it might drop the charges if the young activists admitted their “wrongdoing,” the ministry sent a directive to local educators and school administrators to visit the homes of many of the students who were involved in the protests.
One of them was Lin Kuan-hua, who killed himself in his bedroom on July 30 – his 20th birthday. Lin, who had dropped out of a trade school in June, told a TV talk show that school officials visited his home, pressured his parents, and warned him that if he didn’t cease and desist, his criminal record risked compromising his future job prospects. School officials pointed out that Lin had been a troubled student and that the visit to his home had nothing to do with his suicide.
Throughout the day, the Ministry of Education, held a series of forums at schools across Taiwan, where officials were confronted by angry students and parents.
Later in the day, about 200 activists gathered outside the Ministry of Education for a candlelit vigil. At around 10 pm, the students jumped over the gate of the Legislative Yuan next door and occupied its grounds for about one hour, chanting slogans and calling on legislators to intervene by calling for an extra legislative session. They also demanded that Wu, a former (and not uncontroversial) president of National Chengchi University, step down. At around 11 pm, they vacated the grounds and returned to the street outside the education ministry, where they sang “happy birthday” for Lin and burned ghost money. The activists were soon joined by DPP legislators, who promised to intervene by calling for an extra legislative session, and known TV personalities. Above them, the front gate to the ministry building was plastered with pictures of Wu and Lin.
During one of the many speeches, a young man revealed that he and Lin had been dating and that the latter should be remembered not for his death, but for the cause he had been fighting for.
The sit-in lasted until 1:40 a.m., whereupon the activists – whose numbers had swelled to about 800 and included several parents – used poles and other objects to pull down the police barricades that have surrounded the ministry building for weeks. After briefly clashing with police, approximately 200 protesters occupied the area by the entrance to the ministry. Despite several police orders, protesters refused to leave and launched an overnight sit-in. Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who was criticized after last week’s previous occupation for his awkward response to the incident, issued a directive ordering police not to evict the activists.
As of this writing, the activists were still occupying the grounds of the ministry and said they would remain until the minister showed up. The movement has issued three demands: Wu’s resignation, the mothballing of the guidelines, and that the ministry drop all charges against the students.
The author is an employee of the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, a think tank launched by Tsai Ing-wen in 2012. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the institutions with which he is affiliated.