Taiwan is now a prosperous society regarded as most the progressive in Asia, yet for some that prosperity has come at too high a cost. Ke Chin-yuan’s documentary The Age of Awakening (前進, Qiánjìn) looks back over the last thirty years and wonders how it can be that in a little under half a century humanity has managed to “devastate this beautiful, mountainous island”. Tracing the links between the authoritarian past and the origins of eco-activism, Ke is nevertheless keen to remind us that the environmental costs of unchecked capitalism are not a local issue.
Ke cites the titular “awakening” at the tail end of the martial law era, explaining that the picturesque coastline where he first picked up a camera was forever ruined when the area was re-designated as an industrial park. His own eyes were awakened to the environmental costs of development when local residents rose in opposition to the building of a petrochemical plant, apparently a key part of the nation’s economic strategy. Charting the resistance towards the DuPont plant in Lugang and the LCY Chemical Corp in Hsinchu, he uncovers the hidden link of environmental harm and authoritarianism as centralised government and a prohibition on protest largely prevent the local community having a say over their own land. Though some may have been glad to see the plants arrive, misled by false promises of good jobs and the benefits of development, they were soon disillusioned by the reality in which industrial pollution poisoned the sea life on which the local economy was otherwise dependent while also destroying farmland and leaving an acrid, near unbearable smell in the air.
As one of the protestors puts it, all they want is breathable air and drinkable water. If your government cannot guarantee you such basic rights, then what really is it for? Yet the government, Ke seems to suggest, is minded to make a tradeoff and thinks this is an acceptable price for the prize of economic growth. Seeing the imposition of the plants and misinformation surrounding their foundation as yet more evidence of the various ways in which those with the least power suffer most under authoritarianism, Ke centres the awakening to environmentalism as a cornerstone of the movement against martial law in which communities sought the power and freedom to be able to advocate for their rights on a local level.
Yet as he points out the environment is never just a local issue. The protestors may be successful in keeping the plant out their town, but maybe the plant gets built the next town over where they perhaps aren’t so lucky possibly because they have less sympathetic political leaders keener to toe the government line. Taiwan is a small island, and at least according to some you can’t ever really be far enough away to escape the effects of industrial pollution. Yet even when prevented from building in Taiwan, local companies simply shift overseas to other, even less empowered, areas of Asia where the same thing happens again. The poor are misled by offers of good jobs only to find dead fish washing up on their shores, eventually mounting protests against the unfair imposition of having a chemical plant built on their land. In Taiwan, meanwhile, the issue is even thornier with large developments built on territory which belongs to the indigenous community.
Nevertheless, the drive for economic development continued after the martial law era. According to another protestor, it’s a matter of conscience rather than technology with the choice to favour the economy over the environment seemingly irreversible even when major parties win on an economic platform and govern with the knowledge that such policies have widespread public support. So, Ke asks, why is the government so unwilling to listen when the idea that the environment itself is also a basic human right is almost a given? What has actually changed in the last three decades with Taiwan’s transition to democracy? Not enough, according to his veteran activists, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Awareness has improved, people care more than they used to. They’ve been ‘awakened” to the issues in all of their complexity and Taiwan has a lively, diverse and intersectional activist scene in which environmental concerns are very much part of a social justice movement full in the knowledge that the environment is never just a local issue. The age of awakening may have come to an end, but the age of action is only just beginning.
The Age of Awakening screens on 6th December at London’s Rio Cinema as part of Taiwan Film Festival UK 2020.
Original trailer (no subtitles)