When Chaos Trumps Security

It doesn’t take much for unfolding events to break down security, especially if security forces aren’t well trained to handle unexpected situations. The continuing standoff between the Taiwan government and protesters over the lack of transparency during the negotiations of a cross-Strait services trade pact between Taipei and Beijing, has stolen global headlines and illustrates that scenario.

Scores of university students stormed the legislative chamber in Taipei on March 18, leading to the continued unrest that has since been dubbed the “Sunflower Movement.” That was followed by 100,000 people who gathered for a sit-in protest outside the Presidential Office Building earlier this month.

Contentious issues aside, the entire episode – with memorable scenes of students fending off the raiding police by piling entrances and exits with furniture and riot police using batons and water cannons on them – prompted the nagging question: Was security at the government buildings in Taipei so lax and easily penetrable? Definitely, from my personal experience.

I once managed to walk right past Taiwan’s apparently tight security legitimately, without any resistance, and roamed around without suspicion several times in broad daylight, even when the police and armed forces were on their highest alerts in recent memory.

It was 10 years ago when as a journalism student and barely a month into an internship in a Hong Kong newsroom, I joined a University of Hong Kong “observation tour” of the 2004 Taiwan Presidential Election which is best remembered for the bogus assassination attempt on the incumbent President Chen Shui-bian.

It was supposed to be a three-day tour at the beginning of my brief but memorable media career, with no school assignment and no instruction from the newspaper to cover the election. Following the sudden turn of events when Chen was shot, I called in, only to be ordered to stay and cover the story on the frontline for almost a fortnight.

Without even an accredited press pass, and armed with a worn generic business card from the newspaper – without my name as I was just an intern – and a newly bought pen and notepad, I was breaking front-page stories from “restricted” places.

Without ever being challenged, I walked past the barricades of police into the off-bound High Court on Chungking South Road to grab an exclusive impromptu interview with Kuomintang lawyer Huang Shan-shan when she represented the KMT to demand the High Court grant a complete recount of all votes.

“Don't tell me how you got in,” was the reply when I called to brief the newsroom.

On another occasion, tens of thousands of protesters were chanting away loudly one afternoon at a sea of armed police and military personnel on the other side of a gate set up in front of the Presidential Office Building.

“How did you know the precise number of police and military personnel on duty?” was the question from the newsroom.

“I counted” the helmets painstakingly, I said, as I wriggled my way around the “other” side of the gate into supposedly airtight security and even took snapshots of not just the armed squads in proximity but also the noisy crowd and media crews on the other side of the iron divide.

On each of my successive entries into highly restricted and heavily guarded areas, I simply used my own tactical know-how to openly negotiate my way through – no threats, no bribes and no sweeteners.

Lax security? You bet.

While not necessarily universally relevant, those experiences highlight serious implications for what generally on the surface appear to be heavily guarded premises, not just in Taipei but in other capitals. Most recently two men tested the security and parachuted off the top of the Freedom Tower. site of the former World Trade Center, in New York.

In view of the Taipei events, Hong Kong has been assessing, negative economic impacts aside, the security implications from threats of the “Occupy Central” protest for universal suffrage planned for this July.

Beijing is unlikely to be impressed with the regular street protests in Hong Kong, its Special Administrative Region. While most rallies ended up at government buildings, some important government bodies are actually tenants in commercial towers, where building security is generally much more like building management, like the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in Exchange Square and Securities and Futures Commission in Charter House.

Those working in the International Financial Center may recall how protesters over the Lehman Brothers mini-bonds saga five years ago stormed into the Hong Kong Monetary Authority located on the upper sections of the 88-floor skyscraper, leading to a long suspension of all the elevators as the protesters enjoyed a game of hide-and-seek.

All considered, it's time for some serious rethinking on security matters as it may not take too much imagination to cause more serious collateral damage.

Vanson Soo runs an independent business intelligence and commercial investigations practice specialized in the Greater China region. Blog: http://vansonsoo.com