Taiwan braces for fresh protests over controversial new law

Aerial view of thousands of protesters against Taiwan parliament reform on 28 May 2024
Thousands of protesters against Taiwan parliament reform gathered earlier in May [Getty Images]

Tens of thousands of supporters of Taiwan’s ruling party are expected to gather outside parliament on Friday after it pushed ahead with a hugely controversial “contempt of parliament” bill.

The opposition Kuomintang party (KMT) says the new law is badly needed to redress the power imbalance between the legislature and Taiwan’s very powerful presidency.

But the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) says it’s an unconstitutional power grab, aimed at taking revenge on the DPP government led by President William Lai Ching-te.

The bill will give Taiwan’s parliament more power to interrogate and investigate the executive – to subpoena government officials and private individuals, which could force them to hand over sensitive documents to lawmakers.

It also introduces a “contempt of legislature” clause which can impose fines and even a prison term of up to one year for officials who disrespect parliament. The last clause has been heavily criticised by legal scholars, who say it goes far beyond what is normal in other democratic countries.

When the bill was first introduced in May, huge protests sprang to life on the streets of Taipei as tens of thousands surrounded parliament for days. But there was a lull when it went to Mr Lai’s office for approval.

Mr Lai returned the bill to parliament for review and it passed again, this time fairly quickly – with the support of a fragile coalition of the KMT, the smaller Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and independents.

But the DPP has been calling for its supports to turn up, even if it’s only a symbolic show of their opposition to the bill. The KMT staged a counter-protest on Friday, but the numbers – in their hundreds - were lower than those the DPP drew last month.

The protests, however, have come to reflect a deep political rift in Taiwan, between supporters of the DPP and the KMT.

For decades, KMT, the party of the Chinese nationalists, ruled Taiwan with an iron fist, brutally suppressing all calls for democracy or independence – many of the older DPP leaders were jailed for being radicals. Now the two parties vie for power through the ballot box. But the old suspicions are now fuelling gridlock in parliament.

It’s only one month since President Lai was inaugurated, but already the lack of a majority in a divided parliament means his prospects of getting anything substantial done during his first term are looking bleak.

On the streets outside the legislature there is genuine concern about what’s going on inside. The thousands of DPP supporters appear to believe the contempt of parliament bill is an attempted legislative coup d’etat .

“The process is very unjust and has skipped any substantial discussion”, says 33-year-old Powei Chang. “The bill itself is very dangerous and lacks clear definition. It is basically a way for legislators to expand their powers without the consent of the people.”

The fact that the legislators in question have a parliamentary majority is not good enough for Mr Chang.

The people who have been surrounding parliament are from a cross-section of Taiwan society: young and old, students, professionals, blue-collar workers. They sit patiently on rows of plastic stools. On a make-shift stage, a steady procession of activists take the microphone to decry what is going on inside the chamber.

In May, when a huge afternoon thundershower washed over the city, organisers handed out plastic ponchos, and the better-prepared raised a forest of umbrellas. No-one left.

They are unified by two things: a strong sense of Taiwanese identity and a deep distrust of the motives of the opposition KMT.

“I think what's happening in Taiwan today is something the people need to stand up against,” says a young woman named Eden Hsu. “We can't let those who are trying to sell out Taiwan think they can do whatever they want without opposition.”

Sell out Taiwan to who? To China.

“Many provisions of the bill seem influenced by the Chinese Communist Party,” she says. “The Chinese Communist Party plans to… infiltrate Taiwan using both internal and external support.”

This is a sentiment that is repeated to you over and over, on the street and from activists on stage. There is a broadly-held belief among those opposing the bill that the KMT leadership is now firmly in the pocket of Beijing.

Asked for evidence, protesters and activists alike point to the frequent visits senior KMT politicians make to China. Prime among them is Taiwan’s ageing former KMT President Ma Ying-jeou. In the last six months he has made two trips to China. In April he was warmly welcomed to Beijing by President Xi Jinping himself, who has steadfastly refused any dialogue with Mr Lai or his predecessor Tsai Ing-wen.

One well known DPP politician describes ex-president Ma as Beijing’s “most important political asset” in Taiwan.

Others who are seen as being “very close to Beijing” include the KMT Speaker Han Kuo-yu, who DPP supporters often derisively describe as “the Korean Fish”, a homonym on his name in Chinese.

“He is not really blue [the colour of the KMT party flag],” one DPP politician says. “He’s red [(the colour of the communist party flag].”

Another accused of being “red” is the man in charge of pushing through the “contempt of legislature” bill, KMT caucus leader Fu Kun-chi. Mr Fu is a powerful power broker with a controversial past, including a spell in prison following a conviction for insider stock dealing and concocting a fraudulent divorce. He too is a frequent visitor to China.

All of this is useful grist to the rumour and innuendo mill. But it is not evidence of collusion between senior KMT leaders and Beijing. Indeed, the KMT leadership has been loudly protesting its innocence and pointing to its long history of opposing the Chinese communist party.

“I have more reason than the DPP to hate Beijing,” says Alexander Huang the head of KMT’s international department. “The whole idea [of the bill] is to make the executive more accountable – that’s it.”

But when the KMT controlled the presidency and legislature between 2008 and 2016 it resisted opposition demands to pass a very similar law – the DPP, then on the other side of the aisle, was pushing for it.

The KMT has also suggested it might begin investigating DPP leaders once the bill becomes law.

“For eight years the DPP had a super majority. They could get whatever they wanted. Executive and legislature in coalition to enjoy the resources of Taiwan,” Mr Huang says.

Taiwanese lawmakers holding placards chant slogans, at the chamber inside the Legislative Yuan, in Taipei, Taiwan, 28 May 2024.
Taiwanese lawmakers holding placards chant slogans [EPA]

Asked for evidence, Mr Huang points to Taiwan’s Covid-19 vaccine program. He alleges the DPP government handed tens of millions of dollars to a handful of pharmaceutical companies, none of which managed to develop an effective vaccine.

“That money is gone, but we don’t have a vaccine,” he says. “So, is there anything under the carpet? Can we look at it? the DPP says no.”

The DPP has denied all allegations of wrongdoing. And its supporters say these accusations are baseless, and a repeat of the prosecution of former DPP President Chen Shui-bian, who was convicted of bribery after he left office in 2008.

Now they fear this bill could be used to unleash a string of investigations to cripple Mr Lai’s administration.

Beyond the political divide, Taiwan faces a bigger threat in the shape of China. But many worry that its parliament and executive look set to spend the next four years attempting to hurt each other.