Taiwan's Sunflower Revolution: One Year Later
Taiwan's Sunflower Revolution: One Year Later

 

by Glenn Smith

As youth movements rise to the fore, Taiwan is undergoing a change of identity.

On a sunny Wednesday morning, four activist groups assembled outside Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, held a quick press conference, marched around its periphery seven times to echo the Biblical story of Jericho, and then quietly dispersed.

Three weeks later, these same groups returned in the drizzle of a Friday afternoon, April 10, and formed a human chain around the law-making body before concluding with speeches calling for direct democracy through the reform of referendum and recall laws.

The activists were commemorating the one-year anniversary of the Sunflower movement, when half a million Taiwanese citizens thronged the streets of Taipei last spring. They’d come out to support the students who had barricaded themselves inside the Legislative Yuan for 23 days to protest the cursory review of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), a bilateral agreement with Mainland China.

“Taiwan society changed after the ‘Sunflower movement’ and its impact continues to spread,” legal scholar K.C. Huang told Agence France-Presse. “The people will rise again if the Ma government…hurts Taiwan’s national dignity or disregards the people’s opinions.”

Yet the rallies of March 18 and April 10 were no replay of last spring’s carnival of democracy. Aside from some recognizable student activists, many protesters were well beyond their student years. Participants adhered to a dress code, wearing long pants, white tops, and traditional cone-shaped farm hats, and followed a command hierarchy, marching in single file behind leaders equipped with traffic batons and whistles. Since these rallies were scheduled during office hours, everyday citizens were missing from the crowd.

Newspaper accounts of the March 18 event mentioned the low citizen turnout. Forbes, in a pique of ideological projection perhaps, declared in a headline, the “Petals Fall Off Taiwan’s Anti-China Sunflower Movement.” Two days before the April 10 follow-up rally, President Ma Ying-jeou told the Taipei Foreign Correspondents’ Club, “Cross-strait ties suffered a setback following the student movement last year, but the ties have since returned to normal.”

The Forbes headline writer and President Ma were exercising their basic human right of wishful thinking.

The State of Cross-Strait Relations

The issue underlying the Sunflower movement was Taiwan’s sovereignty.

The island’s independence from China, also referred to as the status quo under the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, is currently just a de facto arrangement — an intractable problem that has plagued Taiwan’s polity for generations. The trajectory of the student movement coincides with President Ma’s economic and political rapprochement with China during the past six years of his presidency. Although momentarily quiescent, campus activism shows no signs of abating.

“You can’t expect the people to be in a constant state of mobilization,” said Rwei-Ren Wu, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Taiwan History. “You don’t have a Million Man March everyday. How many times did Martin Luther King give his ‘I have a dream’ speech?” Wu, and others knowledgeable of the island’s grassroots political movements, see the occupation of the Legislative Yuan as the climax of a long process that began with protests in 2008. “The students were just the face of the Sunflower movement,” he stresses.

When the Sunflower students, much to their own surprise, found themselves inside the Legislative Yuan on March 18, 2014, and logged onto social media, their message was received as an S.O.S. by a network of NGOs and foundations run by an older generation of activists who arrived on the scene within minutes and served as political advisors and problem solvers throughout the siege.

Yet what gave the protest its legitimacy were the hundreds of thousands of citizens who descended on Taipei last spring to support the students and to register their collective angst over Taiwan’s expanding economic and political links with China.

So where are the people one year later? “The energy unleashed by the Sunflower Movement was absorbed into the November local elections and resulted in a landslide victory for the Democratic Progressive Party,” said Wu.

Taiwan's Elections

The elections, held on November 29, put up for grabs 11,130 public offices spanning nine administrative levels from the county to the villages — hence their nickname, the Nine-in-One.

The ruling Kuomintang, or KMT, lost ground even in its some of its traditional strongholds. The opposition DPP won 10 out of 16 mayoral and commissioner races. And, most surprising of all, a political outsider, a medical doctor, Ko Wen-je, became the first independent candidate to win the office of Taipei mayor, which is often a springboard for a later run for the island’s presidency.

Taiwan newspapers declared it a rout, and it was perceived as such in Washington and at U.S. private think tanks. Clearly, Taiwan’s domestic politics underwent a sea change post-Sunflower. The DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, who declared her candidacy on February 15 for the upcoming 2016 presidential election, is widely viewed as frontrunner, even though the KMT has yet to declare its candidate for the contest.

Ma’s rapprochement with China is on hold as well, knocked off course by two or three years. The cross-strait trade agreement remains in limbo, post-Sunflower.

When he was elected in 2008, Ma said his plan of engagement with China targeted “economics first, politics later” and “easy tasks first, difficult ones later.” During his first term, he quickly plucked the low-hanging economic fruit. When re-elected in 2012, Ma was expected to pivot toward political objectives, and it seemed highly likely that Ma and a Chinese president, then Hu Jintao and now Xi Jinping, would meet at a third-country venue before his second term ended. Now, with Ma a lame duck, the chance of such a career-capping Taiwan-China summit is remote.

Yet one thing unchanged in Taiwan-China relations is China’s intentions toward Taiwan. No one in policy circles East or West believes that China will ever give up its plan to annex Taiwan. Reclaiming Taiwan is an unfinished task of the founding of the People’s Republic China. Beijing has waited 60 years so far, and with Ma, it finally had a Taiwan leader it could work with. To Beijing’s delight, Ma pledged to adhere to the 1992 Consensus, under which there was but one China, with both sides allowed leeway to decide what that actually means. By contrast, Taiwan’s two previously popularly elected presidents, Lee Teng-hui and Chen Shui-bian, had been seen as jockeying the island toward independence.

Now with Tsai as a DPP presidential hopeful, Beijing expected a purity pledge. On April 9, Tsai delivered with a position statement. “First of all, the basis for our handling of cross-strait relations is “maintaining the status quo,” preserving cross-strait peace, and continuing the current stable development of the cross-strait relations… as the goal for the DPP upon returning to power.” U.S. President Barack Obama re-pledged as well. When Obama visited Beijing in November 2009, 18 months into Ma’s first term, it was the first presidential visit to China in which Taiwan was not a major issue of contention.

In November 2014, however, when Obama met with Chinese President Xi in China after Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and while Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution was still unfolding, the diplomatic tone had shifted. At a press conference, Obama reaffirmed his commitment to the “One-China policy based on the Three Joint Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act,” hedging slightly by adding that cross-strait relations should be based on “dignity and respect, which is in the interest of both sides, as well as the region and the United States.”

Changing Identifications

Meanwhile, the Taiwanese are undergoing a transformation of identity.

According to poll results issued by the Election Study Center, the percentage of respondents identifying as “Taiwanese” or “Both Taiwanese and Chinese” were at parity in 2008: 43.7 percent and 44.7 percent, respectively. By Ma’s sixth year at the helm, in 2014, “Taiwanese” (60.6 percent) were nearly double the latter (32.5 percent). Even the minority that identified as “Chinese” had dropped from 4.5 percent in 2008 to 3.5 percent in 2014.

The poll also measured Taiwan’s voters views on independence versus unification. The results are difficult to summarize, but the percentage of respondents favoring the maintenance of the status quo increased, while those choosing eventual independence outnumbered those choosing eventual unification.

Critics of Ma’s expansion of economic ties with China say only large corporations and the wealthy have reaped the benefits.

For its part, China seems to have anticipated the charge. Prior to the Sunflower movement, Beijing gave ARATS — the Chinese body set up for cross-strait business — a new directive shifting its Taiwan outreach effort toward the “three middles”: medium-small enterprise, middle and lower classes, and middle and southern Taiwanese, as explained by the KMT’s National Policy Foundation.

Instead of wooing the island’s captains of finance and industry, ARATS officers displayed a fresh concern for orchardists and fishermen and their economic challenges. Belatedly, after the Sunflower Movement, ARATS revised this slogan to “three middles and the young” to include students in their charm offensive.

Some young people are ready to join up. In Taiwan, jobs are hard to find, and entry-level salaries have barely budged for nearly two decades. Chinese corporations recruit on Taiwan campuses. More than a million Taiwan-born people have already gone to China to seek their fortune.

Remaining to Protest

But others intend to stay in their homeland, and they’re demanding a say in Taiwan’s future. Case in point: The coalition of activists that stood in the drizzle outside the Legislative Yuan on April 10.

“410 Power to the People” is what they called their rally. Two of the four groups — Taiwan March and The Appendectomy Project — were launched as the Sunflower movement ended by K.C. Huang, the Academia Sinica legal scholar who recruited members from that base. A third, Citizen 1985, predates them, formed originally to protest the abuse of military draftees.

Founded in 1994, People Rule is a political animal of another stripe altogether and demands “more patience and training” of participants, such as the wearing of uniforms. It also urges participation in “bitter walks” — long silent parades, its trademark method of street theater, according to its chairperson Lihkuei Chen. Members have marched the circumference of Taiwan four times to protest nuclear power and their leaders are in their fifties and older.

The honorary convener of “410 Power to the People” is Lin Yi-hsiung, who is often hailed as the “Saint of Democracy.” Now 73 years old, Lin was part of the dangwai, the underground opposition during martial law. While he was in detention in 1979, his mother and twin seven-year-old daughters were murdered, a case yet unsolved today. Released in 1984, he entered politics and helped bring President Chen Shui-bian to office, and was afterwards appointed DPP chairman.

Then, in 2000, he abruptly resigned, disillusioned with intra- and cross-party bickering. Ever since, he’s worked outside the system to change Taiwan’s politics.

People Rule exhibits a culture of dissent far removed from that of the spontaneous, social-media-driven activist groups on campus. “Two years ago, young people would not have gotten involved, but they show a growing maturity of their national consciousness,” said People Rule’s CEO Lau Mengsin. “They understand that if democracy is not achieved, then Taiwan will be Hong Kong-ized.”

Young and old found common ground in their desire to mend Taiwan’s referendum and recall acts, both hamstrung by unattainable threshold requirements. “The key is to get the structure in place, as only then will Taiwan have a chance at achieving democracy,” said Lau.

Through the use of recall, these activists hope to remove politicians unresponsive to the will of the people. For now, the potential targets belong to the KMT, as is hinted in the name of The Appendectomy Project, which in Mandarin literately refers to the medical procedure but is homonymous with “remove blue legislator.”

Yet the blue-green, KMT-DPP divide may be losing its potency in Taiwan politics. Both parties are pro-business in their domestic platforms, while their “foreign” polices differ primarily in their approach to the Taiwan-China relationship.

Lin withdrew his membership in the DPP in 2006 but has been linked to several new political parties, in particular the New Power Party. Asked if a third party wouldn’t just pull votes from the DPP, People Rule’s Lau countered that the goal was to offer an alternative vision that would temper the policy positions of the current power duopoly, KMT and DPP. The cadre of Sunflower’s former student leaders includes many with aspirations of political office.

“The Sunflower Movement showed the possibility of a third way,” Joseph Lin, chairman of Judicial Reform Foundation, told Reuters. “It shakes up the pre-existing relationship between politics and moneyed interests.”

Yet the “410 Power to the People” coalition is but one petal of the Sunflower bloom. On campus, activism is vibrant bouquet. “It is a multi-centered universe of causes, and I’m seeing groups that are more and more radical,” said Wu of Academia Sinica. “For them, shengji (Taiwan versus mainland China ancestry) doesn’t matter. I recently spoke with a group of 12 kids, and six of them — the more radical ones — were from deep blue families.”

And the kids are getting younger. During the weekend of the anniversary of the February 28 Incident — now a national day of mourning for thousands of Taiwanese intellectuals murdered on that date in 1947 to soften resistance to Chiang Kai-shek’s arrival — in cities around the island, statues of the Generalissimo were spray painted, and one even beheaded. High school students were suspected among the culprits.

The radical chic that drew dabblers to the carnival of democracy that was the Sunflower Movement may have faded. But the people spoke during last November’s Nine-in-One elections. And for the young generation, the battle for Taiwan’s problematic future has just begun.

Glenn Smith is a journalist who's been based in Taipei for 30 years. He has contributed to more than 100 publications, including Foreign Policy In Focus.

 

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