University of Tasmania
Mark Harrison is the author of Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) and co-editor of The Margins of Becoming: Culture and Identity in Taiwan (Wiesbaden: Harrassovitz, 2007). He also wrote the section ‘Cross-Straits Relations’ in our China Story Yearbook 2012. Mark is a senior lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, a member of the Management Group of the Australian Centre on China in the World and President of the Chinese Studies Association of Australia.—The Editors
From the second half of 2012, a student-led protest in Taiwan called the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement 反媒體壟斷運動 has campaigned around the issues of media freedom and democracy. The protests were initiated by a series of high-profile corporate media take-overs and the responses to these by the Taiwanese government and media regulators.
The movement has had a distinctive rhythm through the year – working at the grassroots, constantly evolving and responsive to unfolding developments in media-ownership – and it has been multi-dimensional in its practices, including the organisation of protest marches, the launching of petitions, as well as the use of global social networking activities.
The protests have been sometimes explicitly, and often implicitly, directed at the Want Want China Times Media Group 旺旺中時媒體集團. But they have also embraced a range of issues related more broadly to freedom, democracy, nationalism, party politics and the role of the state. As is often the case in media debates, the protests have evoked an idealised public sphere, one supposedly enabled by a media free from corporate and political influence. Specific to Taiwan are concerns about the influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over Taiwan’s political life via corporate and state interests that are increasingly finding expression through the mass media.
Media ownership emerged as a major issue at the end of 2011 when the Want Want China Times group expressed its intention to buy out China Network Systems (CNS), the second-largest cable TV provider in Taiwan. Want Want China Times is part of Want Want, a conglomerate that started out in the 1960s making rice crackers; it is now one of the largest snack food and beverage producers in Asia, with extensive interests in China. Want Want China Times was formed in 2008 following the acquisition of the China Times Group which included the China Times 中國時報 newspaper and a number of other print and electronic titles. It subsequently added the terrestrial and cable television broadcasters CTV and CiTV to its stable. Its high-profile chairman, sometimes referred to as Taiwan’s richest man, is Tsai Eng-meng 蔡衍明, son of the company’s founder Tsai A-shi 蔡阿仕. The current CEO of Want Want China Times is the founder’s grandson, Tsai Shao-chung 蔡紹中.
After it was bought out by Want Want, the editorial line of the China Times media group skewed towards support for a particular kind of Chinese state corporatism. It validates the PRC party-state and the rhetoric of national economic development. It also supports the parallel efforts of Taiwan’s Nationalist (KMT 國民黨) government to align its policies with those of the mainland. Rather than being explicitly pro-Communist Party, the China Times group speaks as if Taiwan and the PRC are simply a single, albeit geographically divided, entity of corporate activity. Its editorial line is expressed in English in the online news website wantchinatimes.com.
It is against this backdrop that the proposed acquisition of China Network Systems (CNS) by Want Want China Times stirred up key concerns in Taiwan’s story of democratisation, economic modernisation and the rise of Taiwanese identity. The stand-off in the 2012 Anti-Media Monopoly Movement involves on one side Taiwan’s democracy activists who have been enabled by media pluralism and freedom of expression, and on the other by opportunistic Taiwanese anti-democratic corporate interests that may well be proxies for PRC authoritarianism and the Chinese party-state’s territorial claims over Taiwan. The 2012 Anti-Media Monopoly Movement champions a democratic Taiwan that is enabled by media pluralism and freedom. It is a stance that opposes opportunistic anti-democratic corporate interests that may be acting as a proxy for the People’s Republic, its authoritarianism and its territorial claim over the island.
To this extent, the protest movement can be seen as something of an activist commentary on cross-straits relations, Taiwanese identity and Taiwan’s political future vis-à-vis mainland China.
On 25 July, the National Communications Commission (NCC) ruled on the CNS take-over. At the time, a small protest was held outside its offices and a petition was submitted the signatories of which urged the Commission to reject the bid. The NCC nonetheless approved it but with significant caveats that placed limits on Want Want China Times’s presence in the cable TV news market by restricting the amount of news programming it would be allowed to broadcast.
Later that same day, China Times published reports accusing the Academia Sinica-based media researcher Huang Kuo-chang 黃國昌 of paying students to participate in the protest. As if to illustrate exactly the concerns of the protesters about the nature of an unchecked media monopoly, the newspaper’s criticism of Huang broadened over the following days to become an extraordinary coordinated attack on the researcher from all the electronic and print news media interests of Want Want China Times Group.
In what was now an escalating political controversy, a number of prominent China Times columnists shut down their blogs in protest over the behaviour of their employer. A deputy editor and a journalist also resigned from the paper. Eventually, China Times apologised to Huang Kuo-chang but nonetheless the CEO of the conglomerate behind China Times, Tsai Eng-meng, managed to enrage the protesters further by declining to commit to the conditions set on the group by the NCC.Concern over these issues began to coalesce through August. This led to activists organising students and the mobilisation of a protest movement. On 1 September, a large protest march was held in Taipei. An estimated nine thousand students and concerned citizens walked from the headquarters of the Want Want China Times Group building in the district of Wanhua 萬華區 to the National Communications Commission on Ren’ai Road 仁愛路.
The protest was organised under the banner of the Anti-Media Monster Youth Alliance 反媒體巨獸青年聯盟 in association with the Association of Taiwan Journalists 台灣新聞記者協會, the Taiwan affiliate of the International Federation of Journalists (whose Asia-Pacific website features several statements of support related to the movement) and a range of other interested groups who coalesced through social media.
By the time of the march, the movement had developed online under the slogan ‘You’re very big, but I am not afraid’ 你很大, 我不怕 and iconography featuring a tyrannosaurus and caricature of the Want Want corporate logo. The Facebook page devoted to the march collected reports, video, commentary and ‘likes’. This has formed into an eco-system of protest in which the event and the issues related to it now circulate as texts, images and video through a range of pathways and across languages.
Two of the key organizers of the protests – Lin Fei-fan 林飛帆 and Chen Tsung-yen 陳宗延, both students at National Taiwan University – composed a petition on behalf of the protest march, called the ‘1 September Anti-Media Monopoly March’ 反媒體壟斷901大遊行. In 2010, Lin and Chen participated as founders of a group called the Student Rights Team 學權小組, or 大學學生權利調查評鑑小組 in full, which aimed to raise awareness of administrative restrictions on free speech and student activism in the university system. The group organised a number of protests through 2010 and 2011.
The petition criticised Want China for turning China Times into what it dubbed Tsai Eng-men’s ‘personal loudhailer’ which was being used for the suppression of opponents to his corporate goals. The petition called for: greater media professionalism; an apology from Want Want for its behaviour; and, for the NCC to block the take-over of CNS, and to ‘return Want China Group to its original style’, meaning the broadly right-of-centre politics it exemplified in the 1990s and early 2000s. Contrary to a complacent view that media diversity is not that important, the authors of the petition argued that Taiwanese democracy is still fragile and needs to be bolstered by a free and fair press. The petition appealed for Tsai Eng-meng to respect Taiwan’s democratic rule of law. It also claimed that the ‘votive offering’ 腳尾飯 or ad hominem attack on Huang Kuo-chang mention earlier, was part of a long-term strategy to turn the media group into the ‘hired thugs of Boss Tsai’ 蔡老闆的打手 serving his corporate and political goals.
Later in September, the Sino-Japanese controversy over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands dominated the news. Even here, though, when a flotilla of fishing boats sailed from Ilan in Taiwan to the disputed islands to confront Japanese coast guard vessels, fuel costs were drawn from an Ilan county government account that was said to be funded by Tsai Eng-meng.
In October, media ownership as a public issue moved to a new level following the decision by the Hong Kong media owner Jimmy Lai 黎智英 to divest himself of his Taiwanese media business, Next Media. This conglomerate includes the Taiwan edition of Lai’s Apple Daily and his loss-making Next TV station. Apple Daily, in particular, has built a reputation as an anti-establishment voice, sensationalist, populist but also one that walks a fine line between the pro-KMT and pro-Democratic Progressive Party (DPP 民進黨) editorial positions of other established media players. (Next TV became famous internationally through the 2000s for its computer-animated news stories.)
At the end of October, a consortium of Taiwanese investors, including Tsai Shao-chung, offered US$600m for Next Media. Once more, the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement mobilised its supporters. On 29 November, with riot police looking on, it held a public protest to demand that the National Communications Commission reject the Next Media take-over. At the same time, the movement began using social media to spread its campaign worldwide. Using a new Facebook page called ‘What’s Next?’ activists have been invited to download a PDF document with the text ‘Oppose Media Monopoly, Reject the black hand of China, uphold freedom of the press, I protect Taiwan in ___ ‘反對媒體壟斷、拒絕中國黑手、捍衛新聞自由、我在___守護台灣’. Participants print the PDF, write their location in the blank space provided, photograph themselves holding it up and upload the photo to the Facebook page. Hundreds of photos are online of Taiwanese and non-Taiwanese with the protest sign in famous locations around the world, including in Tiananmen Square.
The campaign rolls on, with institutional responses generating more controversy, editorial commentary and news coverage. In late November, the Ministry of Education sent an email to universities calling for them to ‘deepen their understanding and concern’ 多加瞭解及關心 towards students involved in the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement which included a list of student activists who were to be paid particular attention. The Ministry’s notification (inadvertently) linked the media movement back to the earlier Student Rights Team activism of 2010. In the blogsphere, people recalled the dark era of martial law when students were a key target of the KMT state security apparatus (see, for example, here).
Chen Wei-ting 陳為廷, a student from Tsing Hua University 清華大學, attacked the Minister of Education at a forum held by the Legislative Yuan. Thereafter, the President of Tsing Hua apologized on behalf of the university as a result of which the university itself was subject to protest and criticism for having expressed acquiescence to the authorities. Ninety-five faculty members signed a petition of protest and students held a rally on campus, with more protest actions planned.
The Anti-Media Monopoly Movement is part of the broader fabric of political practice and resistance in Taiwan today. In the modern history of Taiwanese politics, such a wave of protest could be seen as a ‘social movement’, an issue-specific campaign of the kind seen during martial law (1947-1987) and during the democracy era (1987-) up to the present. From the 1970s onwards, though street marches, writing and lobbying, activists established social movements to pursue rights on behalf of consumers, the gay community, farmers, Taiwanese aborigines, as well as protesting over environmental degradation and in relation to other forms of civil rights. In these movements activists have agitated for legislative and policy changes, first from the KMT government and, later, in the 2000s, from the DPP government.
Not all such movements, however, have been progressive or democratic in intent. The initial ‘Protect the Diaoyutai Islands’ 保釣運動 protest at Taipei university campuses in 1971, which culminated in 2500 students signing a petition in their own blood, gave expression to a form of Chinese hyper-nationalism that contrasted with the inherently progressive agenda of later rights campaigns.
Issue-specific though they are, social movements in Taiwan have been framed by a definition of politics generated by the KMT party-state itself, from Retrocession in 1945 to the lifting of martial law in 1987. Authoritarianism and the inculcation of Chinese nationalism by the KMT (not, notably, the KMT’s obsession with Communism) created a political landscape in which democratization and Taiwanese identity became the intertwined bases of oppositional politics. This history continues to resonate through politics on the island today.
In the martial law period, the politics of the KMT produced a range of opposition ideologies. Authoritarianism was opposed by mainland Chinese democratic liberals, exemplified by Lei Chen 雷震, editor of Free China 自由中國 until his arrest and imprisonment in 1960. The racialism of the KMT’s Chinese nationalism was opposed by ethnicist Formosan nationalism, for example in the writing of Cui Bunking 周文卿 and Tiun Hong-jit 張宏一, editors of the English-language journal Independent Formosa. Liberal Taiwanese activism bound democracy and Taiwanese nationhood together through the notions of self-determination and democratic sovereignty, and can be found in the writings of Peng Ming-min 彭明敏.
When the KMT government of the Republic of China suffered a series of international reversals that undermined its legitimacy in the 1970s, anti-KMT activism gathered strength and focus. In 1979, the founding of Formosa Magazine 美麗島 and The Eighties 八十年代 created an intellectual and organisational platform of opposition drawing democrats and Taiwanese nationalists together. This culminated in the Kaohsiung Incident of 10 December 1979, a huge protest rally in the southern city of Kaohsiung held on Human Rights Day that was broken up violently by the police and military. A generation of activists including Huang Hsin-chieh 黃信介, Chang Chun-hung 張俊宏, Chen Chu 陳菊, Lu Hsiu-lien 呂秀蓮, Lin Yi-hsiung 林義雄, Shih Ming-teh 施明德 were arrested, tried by military courts and imprisoned for organzing the protest.
In the mid 1980s this group of protesters would form the core of the Democratic Progressive Party. As Taiwan’s democratic processes consolidated through constitutional reforms and the lifting of restrictions on the press in the 1990s, divisions, sometimes extremely acrimonious, emerged within this group of earlier activists. Nonetheless, many became key members of the DPP-led government in 2000 and remain active figures in Taiwan’s political life today.
In this account of Taiwan’s post-1945 political history, democracy and nationhood are commensurate. Democracy, being the expression of the political will of the people of Taiwan, is by definition a form of national self-determination. The practice of democracy on Taiwan has elided into its identity formation and become part of its nationalist ideology. The heady atmosphere and violent struggles against the KMT in the 1970s for political freedom which lead to the establishment of the DPP in 1986 and the lifting of martial law in 1987 is, for an earlier generation of anti-KMT activists the story of a nation forged in struggle. In this account, the DPP writes itself into the centre of the story creating a national narrative that starts with the end of the Qing dynasty and the cession of Taiwan to the Japanese Empire in 1895, continues throughout the first half of the twentieth century with the Taiwanese people’s struggles against various oppressive regimes until the moment of democratic transformation in 1987.
And it is in that context that, through the 1990s and 2000s, the target of Taiwanese nationalist and democratic activism has expanded beyond the KMT and across the straits to include the PRC. As the stance of the PRC became more belligerent towards Taiwan, the Chinese nationalism and authoritarianism it represented reactivated the themes of Taiwanese identity and democracy that had motivated anti-KMT activists in the 1970s.
In this dominant narrative of political history, nationhood is defined by a particular generation of opposition activists, and their story of nation-building is in turn defined by the repression and ideology of the KMT. The terms of public and political debates in Taiwan have become pre-set by this mimetic binary of oppressor and oppressed, so that every controversy or policy issue is understood in terms of whether it takes Taiwan forwards or backwards along its path of democratic nationhood.
The Anti-Media Monopoly Movement, with its themes of democracy and a media free from PRC influence, is no exception. However, in their meticulous political practices, the movement’s activists seemed to be offering a tentative critique of the political styles of the earlier generation in order to mark out a politics of their own.They are at the very least repudiating the label of ‘Strawberry Tribe’ 草莓族 which has been used to deride Taiwanese youth. Like strawberries, young people in Taiwan are characterised by their elders and the media as an indulged generation that has grown up in the post-martial law era: they are sweet, nice to look at, but easily bruised. The suggestion that young Taiwanese are politically timorous results from the claim by the activists of the 1970s to ownership of the story of a nation forged in political struggle. Even without a state security apparatus as brutal as that of the martial law era, the Anti-Media Monopoly protesters today are fully committed.
Prior to the protest march of 1 September, the organizers visited the offices of the two main and two minor political parties. They were acknowledging Taiwan’s rancorously divisive party politics and deliberately distancing themselves from one side or the other. Through their visits, they could not be dismissed as proxies of the DPP by the KMT.
The organisers were aiming to create a carefully planned and controlled protest in which political commitment was rationalised and codified, emotions were controlled and violence avoided. In doing so they were creating a strong contrast to the fury and flamboyance of Taiwan’s dominant, and highly polarised mainstream political behaviour.In the What’s Next? Facebook campaign, a new global Taiwanese community has been mobilised. It is not an exile community like that of Taiwanese activists in the 1960s and 1970s that was to be found the US, Europe and Japan, but rather a community consisting of a global diaspora including students and professionals who have been brought together around contemporary ways of thinking about democracy, media and corporate interests. They are also a community who have been able to mobilise like-minded people in their host countries to support them.Local citizens at a commemoration of UN Human Rights Day at a town hall in France were co-opted to become part of the What’s Next campaign.
In Manchester university students uploaded a series of images in support of media freedom in Taiwan.
Underpinning the anti-KMT activism of the 1960s and 1970s was the notion of a Taiwanese form of modernity. Activists were looking for political forms that were appropriate for a modern Taiwan created by its rapid economic development through the latter twentieth century. Their solutions wove together modern conceptions of nationhood and democracy and rejected the ideology and authoritarian practices of the KMT under Chiang Kai-shek.
In the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement of 2012, with its cautious and incipient attempts to develop new political practices and connect Taiwan with new global networks, there may be a recognition that the vision of a modern Taiwan, and Taiwanese modernity, is in need of renewal.
Michael Cole, ‘Taiwan’s Youth Fights for Democracy, Again’, Wall Street Journal (Asian Edition), 13 December 2012.
Ching-Yi Liu and Weiping Li, ‘ “Horrible disaster” Brewing in Taiwan’s Media Sector‘, Index on Censorship, 24 December 2012, online at:
Nat Bellocchi, ‘Want Want Monopoly Threatens Democracy’, Taipei Times, 26 December 2012.