Taiwan’s Democratic Crisis
The Sunflower Movement One Month on
TO ANY CLOSE OBSERVER of Taiwanese-Chinese cross-strait relations, it will come as no surprise that Taiwan’s Sunflower movement failed to capture international attention. Part of it was just bad timing. How could news of the twenty-four day student occupation of legislature compare, for example, to the crisis in Ukraine? Or to the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight M370? But, of course, Taiwan has lived for some decades in the shadow of its larger neighbor, China. When the Sunflower movement did, in fact, make the news, it was only as an issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty in relation to China.
The significance of the Sunflower movement in Taiwanese history as the largest student movement since the end of martial law is already assured. Nevertheless, what the Sunflower movement bodes for Taiwan, much less its broader implications for Asia, are less certain.
Since the end of the student occupation, Taiwan has seen the revival of its longstanding anti-nuclear movement and the reinvigoration of widespread social activism. Crowds still will continue to gather in the hundreds outside of the Legislative Yuan, Presidential Residence, and other sites in response to ongoing developments. But the limits and possibilities of the movement remain to be seen. The question presently at hand is as to the next step of the movement.
THE 318 MOVEMENT or, as it is better known, the Sunflower movement, began on March 18th with the occupation of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s legislative branch of government, by a loosely organized group of student activists in protest of the CSSTA Taiwan-China trade agreement. The group which emerged as the coordinating body of the Legislative Yuan occupation was known as the “Black Island Youth Front.” While not a previously well known group, it emerged as the most publicly visible representative of the occupation through the prominence of its spokesmen, Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting.
The movement’s ability to mobilize students and young people from the beginning was extraordinary. By 12 AM on the night of the initial occupation, several thousand students had gathered outside of the Legislative Yuan, largely mobilized through word of mouth and social media networks. In the author’s estimation, for the first two or three days after the occupation, 80% of the composition of the crowd outside of the Legislative Yuan were students. It was only subsequent that civic society activists became more actively involved and the Sunflower movement shifted in the direction of a broader social constituency.
After a week of impasses in which President Ma Ying-jeou refused to negotiate with the students, students occupied the Executive Yuan on the night of March 23rd in an attempt to escalate the situation. The occupation was conducted by teams of students who assembled off-site, then gathered in previously selected locations at designated times and charged the police barriers surrounding the Executive Yuan, although the author deems it prudent at this time not to reveal further details. Rumors suggest that attempts were also made to occupy the Control Yuan, but there are conflicting claims as to what groups were responsible for the occupation attempt.
Though police violence on a scale not seen since the end of the martial law period was employed that night in order to evict the students, there was, in fact, public backlash against the students from the Taiwanese public. Namely, while the Legislative Yuan occupation was deemed legitimate because of its apparently spontaneous nature, the inherently premeditated nature of the Executive Yuan occupations caused some to view it as illegitimate even in the face of police violence. This was, however, the first time in Taiwanese history two out of the five Yuans were occupied, including the legislative and executive branches of government.
The high point of the twenty-four day occupation was a march of 500,000 on the Presidential Residence on March 30. As the Taiwanese population is 23 million, this was quite possibly the largest protest in Taiwan since the end of the authoritarian period of government. In regards to the protests to date, very likely March 30th marks the high point of collaboration between student and civic society groups.
Although the occupation came to an end with much fanfare on April 10, protests continue. An hunger strike by former DPP chairman Lin Yi-Hsiung has shifted the movement’s attention in the direction of the forty year old nuclear issue and on April 27th, mobilized approximately 50,000 onto the streets of Taipei and saw the occupation of major intersection Zhongxiao West Road, which only ended later that night with the forcible attempted eviction of the protestors using riot police, tear gas, and water cannons.
While Lin Yi-Hsiung’s hunger strike has since ended, resulting in the calming of some tensions, the CSSTA and the nuclear issue remain at hand. Though the KMT declared the ceasing of work on the controversial “Reactor No. 4”, protestors rejected the KMT’s unilateral declaration on the basis that the decision wasn’t the KMT’s to make; after all, the KMT in itself does not constitute the decision-making basis of government provided Taiwan is beyond the period of one-party rule.
A Labor Day protest by organized labor these past few days only saw the mobilization of about 10,000 to 20,000 in light of the historic weakness of Taiwanese labor, though not without physical confrontation with police outside the Ministry of Labor. But what becomes increasingly evident at present is the degree to which this political crisis will not simply fade away. With the recent turn of the protests towards anti-nuclear politics, some have thought of the Sunflower movement as having ended, or that the longstanding Taiwanese anti-nuclear movement has in some way co-opted the energy behind the Sunflower movement.
This is not the case. Rather, Taiwan is facing a political crisis of democracy and the Sunflower and anti-nuclear movements were both expressions of this crisis. While some has spoken of a return to normalcy, the potential for the situation to explode has not yet faded away. The crisis has not yet been resolved in one way or the other. We are at a point not only in which the direction of future activity remains uncertain, but in which much is up in the air.
The “Orphan of Asia”
A DISTINCTIVE FEATURE OF the protests thus far has been the lack of international coverage. That the protests have faced a “soft blackout” in international media has been remarked on already by English-language commentators of Taiwanese politics. But when featured in international news, the Sunflower movement was framed as an issue regarding Taiwan-China relations. What went unremarked upon was the degree to which the protests thus far have been an issue of Taiwan’s “unfinished democratic transition,” which it would seem is downplayed by most foreign commentators. 
From 1949 to 1987, Taiwan existed in a state of martial law. Declared by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) in order to prevent civic unrest after its withdrawal to Taiwan from mainland China, martial law was justified under the pretenses of anti-communism. The need for martial law can be traced back to the 1947 “228 Incident,” an uprising of of Taiwanese protesting mistreatment and discriminatory policies against native born Taiwanese after the accidental killing of a fruit seller by Chinese Nationalist agents which ended in the massacre of 20,000 to 30,000 Taiwanese by the KMT military.
The formation of a second party only comes out of militancy by the Dangwai movement that sought to form a viable political party outside of the KMT in the 70s and 80s, otherwise a period plagued by the execution and suppression of political dissidents by the ruling KMT. Taiwan’s current generation of politicians, although now aging, largely comes out of this period in time, whether out of the KMT that then existed or out of the Dangwai movement.
That the martial law period and the thirty-eight years of “White Terror” that it entailed only came to an end in 1987, that the first general elections in Taiwan were only held in 1992, and that the first direct presidential election was held in 1996 mark Taiwan as a fledgling democracy, hardly twenty years old. However, inquiry into Taiwanese politics have generally been adulatory, praising the apparently bloodless transition from authoritarian regime to one of the “East Asian Tigers,” a liberal democratic island-nation that punches above its weight economically.
THE OCCUPATION OF the Taiwanese Legislative Yuan by student activists was in protest of the passing of the Cross-Straits Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) between Taiwan and China, a free trade deal which would allow China to invest in 80 Taiwanese industries and Taiwan to invest in 64 Chinese industries. Concern on the part of Taiwanese activists has in part been that this bill would be a means for China to come to control Taiwan economically, thus paving the way for eventual Chinese political control of Taiwan.
Yet this is only half of the issue. The other side of the issue, referred within political discourse as the “Black Box” issue, is in regards to the means by which the CSSTA was pushed through legislature by the KMT. Despite that it was known that the bill would bring about controversy, perhaps precisely because it was controversial, the bill was pushed through legislature in under thirty seconds through legislative sleight-of-hand. Any KMT member who refused to go with the party line in pushing through the bill was threatened with expulsion. And despite the fact that in Taiwan it remains possible for a political actor to be in favor of the CSSTA or even the signing of free trade agreements with China, but opposed to the “Black Box” means by which the bill was pushed through legislature, this fact has simply not been remarked upon in foreign media coverage.
Indeed, it has been a claim of protestors to date that their actions are “pro-democracy”. Western commentators are right to be skeptical. After all, apart from the extremist right or religious fundamentalists, there would seem to be few who would claim to be “anti-democracy.” But one might therefore turn towards examining Taiwanese history.
The point at which Taiwan transitioned from authoritarian regime to democracy is often held to be the Lee Deng-Hui presidency in which the first “Taiwanese” KMT president born in Taiwan rather than mainland China saw himself unexpectedly dismantling the KMT’s decades-long party-state control over civil society, leading to the opening up of Taiwan to democratic elections. In other evaluations, it is held to be the election of Chen Shui-bian’s DPP presidency as the first non-KMT president in Taiwanese history, and the subsequent peaceful transition of power back from the DPP to the KMT after the DPP’s return to opposition status in 2008 after Chen’s two terms in power ended.
Such benchmarks may have missed the mark. A party-state apparatus is not dismantled so easily. Even during Chen Shui-bian’s 2000 to 2008 presidency, the only time a non-KMT president held power in Taiwanese history, the KMT remained in control of the Legislature. That after Chen’s presidency ended he was arrested under corruption charges, publicly disgraced, and condemned to 25 years imprisonment would suggest the continued use of political repression. Likewise, the current old guard of KMT leaders remains largely the same old guard present during the authoritarian period.
Yet while the protestors’ declamation of “Dictator Ma” in reference to current President Ma Ying-jeou is in fact hyperbolic, it is not incorrect that as a KMT Executive Yuan minister in 1991, Ma was opposed to general elections open to all of Taiwanese society.  In consideration of Taiwan’s political history and only recent history of democracy, the claim of student demonstrators that their actions are for “democracy” does not seem like purely a rhetorical claim.
In fact, what becomes apparent from the overenthusiastic western response to Taiwan’s supposed democratic transition is that, once more, Taiwan is plagued by its existential woe—conflation with mainland China. The belief that Taiwan’s authoritarian KMT had somehow made the peaceful transition to democracy in ceding power without struggle perhaps masked the hope that so it could also be with mainland China—that the KMT’s brother-party of the Chinese Communist Party, too, could make the transition to liberal democratic capitalism following the Taiwanese model.
And so it could not be helped that the incomplete nature of Taiwan’s democratic transition went neglected by certain western commentators, for their worldview provided for a rather low threshold to measure the achievement of Taiwanese democracy in light of Taiwan’s economic achievements. It simply did not fit with the wishful thinking of those whose interest into Taiwan viewed it purely as an extension of China, if one whose economic prosperity set it apart, and whose true desire was for China to similarly integrate itself to the world system of liberal democratic capitalism by way of the Communist Party peacefully relinquishing power.
So, then, has there been little coverage of the Sunflower movement from foreign media. Put simply, as a fairly obscure East Asian country, whose importance to the world is predominantly registered as a sites of potential future conflict with China stepping up its efforts at expanding its political power abroad, Taiwan does not simply register on the international stage. Given Taiwan’s potential as a possible flash point of future Asian conflict, one would in fact think there would be more coverage than there has been.
By contrast, when commentators have remarked upon the Sunflower movement, they have sometimes been condemnatory, declaring the protestors undemocratic for their use of extraparliamentary and illegal forms of protest. But perhaps belying their criticism is also the simple desire for student protestors to simply withdraw and acquiesce to China’s interests for the sake of broader stability in the East Asian region. Never mind the island of Taiwan.
AS A PRODUCT OF Taiwanese sub-ethnic cultural and economic tensions between those who arrived before after 1947 and Taiwan’s relation to China as a de facto independent state but whose statehood is only acknowledged by 24 other countries remains opaque, underlying the protests has been the question of Taiwanese independence.
Protestors have to date been emphatic that they are not against the Chinese people, but merely against control by the Chinese government, to which extent no platform on independence or unification with mainland China has been explicitly attached to the Sunflower movement.
It would also appear that with the current generation of Taiwanese, ethnic tensions are fading, as evidenced in the inability of the DPP to leverage older forms of identity politics. While slogans driven by “Mainlander” versus “Taiwanese” identity politics have circulated within the Sunflower movement such as the slogan “We are the 91%”—the idea being that in Taiwan, the 90% “Taiwanese” and 1% “Aboriginal” population is set against the 9% “Mainlander” population in the way of the “99%” versus the “1%”—the truth is such distinctions do not truly hold.
The participation of “Mainlanders” within Taiwanese independence politics within recent years has increased, with the rise of third-generation Mainlanders who do not identify with mainland China as their parents might have, but with a specifically Taiwanese identity, and a resultant lack of true animosity between a younger generation of Mainlanders and Taiwanese.
What is more opaque is the degree to which Taiwanese independence politics has gone expressed or unexpressed within the movement. Though participant groups such as the “Black Island Youth Front” are in fact pro-independence, they have closeted this position in order as to not alienate those sections of the population for whom pro-independence positions remain too radical. Thus, it is to be questioned as to how pro-independence positions will be expressed in the future without alienating sections of the public.
AT PRESENT, despite the end of the occupation, the situation in Taiwan remains tense. Once more, what has gone unreported in most international media coverage is the severity of the political crisis, and the conflict between forces in support of the movement and against it. Approximately a month before the occupation began, a truck driver rammed his truck into the Presidential Residence as an act of political protest. The eviction of the students that forced their way into the Executive Yuan on the night of March 23rd was decried by some as the largest use of police force since the martial law period.
Gangster “White Wolf” Chang An-lo, infamous for carrying out political assassinations of for the KMT in the 1980s, declared that he would arrive to evict the students with 2,000 gangsters on April 1st, but only arrived with several hundred that day and did not undertake any action against the students. Some protestors who strayed too close were attacked but the police took no action against Chang despite his lack of a permit for a formal political protest.
Attempts at suicide or self-injury to provide a martyr for the Sunflower movement include a failed attempt at self-immolation on March 26th and Taiwanese Referendum Alliance head Tsay Ting-kuei’s running headlong into a scooter on April 11th after a police action driving out remaining occupiers following the students’ vacating the Legislative Yuan, in response to which approximately a thousand protestors mobilized the next night to force the resignation of the police chief responsible.
To the degree that the movement has now swung in the direction of the long-standing issue of the the building of a fourth nuclear power plant in Taiwan, the building of which it is claimed seventy percent of Taiwanese are opposed to, was largely a product of Lin Yi-Hsiung’s hunger strike against nuclear power stirring individuals into action. Former DPP head Lin Yi-Hsiung, whose family was killed in 1980 by the KMT and is currently seventy-one years old, for the past week undertook a hunger strike in opposition to the building of Nuclear Plant No. 4.
This was immediately galvanizing of the public; the night he began his strike, a number of protestors attempted to force their way into the Legislative Yuan again, tearing down a number of police barriers to do so. The April 28th anti-nuclear protest and street occupation may mark the shift of the movement away from purely the CSSTA issue, but indeed, the eviction later that night proves the second time police violence was used on such a scale in the political crisis thus far, which denotes that the possibility of police violence escalating future events remains on the table.
As such, the issue of government “authoritarianism lite” is more viscerally present than ever.  On April 29th, the government executed five death row inmates in a move commonly viewed as an attempt to deflect public criticism from other matters, in consideration of that 76% of the Taiwanese population support the death penalty. In recent weeks, it has emerged as a possibility that the government will arrest student leaders involved in the occupation, which some commentators have compared to the arrest of former DPP president Chen Shui-bian—that is, an attempt to silence critics of the ruling KMT. Leaked documents whose authenticity has been verified by the government confirm the creation of an “Internet Army” to monitor oppositional political activity. Most menacingly, the government has now decreed future policies of “preemptive detention” for demonstrators, phrasing which certainly rings of the authoritarian period.
However, going forward, what will face the Sunflower movement or successive movements are tactical question of what the best strategies to adopt to circumstances will be. Again, it remains a question how to express pro-independence positions without proving alienating of a broader public. Similarly, while many of the involved groups are in fact anti-free trade in orientation, it proves difficult to express such positions when the Taiwanese public is more concerned with finding means by which Taiwan’s lagging economic situation could be improved. And while the public at large has latched onto highly visible leaders of the Sunflower movement such as Lin Fei-fan, Chen Wei-ting, and the “Black Island Youth Front,” support from organizers is far more critical because with their leadership, a small body of selected individuals has been making decisions that affect the movement as a whole.
Yet, in fact, what the aims of the movement are or should be in fact, is probably what most bears in need of clarification. The Taiwanese nuclear issue, which verges on becoming an issue of thirty years duration, cannot be said to be an issue of purely single-issue politics. Namely, while it is true that Taiwan has not experienced anything approaching the apocalyptic nature of Japan’s Fukushima incident, with the drift of a generation of younger activists away from electoral politics with the increasing conservativism of the DPP and towards single-issue activism, the anti-nuclear movement has served an incubator for the structures and networks that led to the outgrowth of the Sunflower movement. Early March, a few weeks before the occupation of the Legislative Yuan, saw 200,000 protesting across Taiwan in support of anti-nuclear politics, and against the building of “Reactor No. 4,” the fourth nuclear reactor in Taiwan which has been under construction for the last forty years, though not without controversy. Thus, the return to anti-nuclear politics in fact does not represent a significant shift in focus for Taiwanese social activism, but rather the redirection of the energy behind Sunflower movement back to its roots.
Results and Prospects
WHILE SOME HAVE SEEN the shift towards anti-nuclear politics from the Sunflower movement as a progressive move, a means by which Taiwanese social issues are coalescing together into collective consideration, this may not necessarily be the case. There has certainly been some loss of momentum; some, for example, are just not interested in the anti-nuclear issue the way they were interested in the Legislative Yuan occupation. But what bears is that some sort of framework is needed for the political issues concerning Taiwan to at present to be addressed.
One possibility would certainly be an electoral frame: that is, to situate Taiwan’s broad-ranging political concerns within the framework of electoral issues, and to seek to address them through electoral reform. But, indeed, with the drift rightwards of the DPP in recent years, the separation of DPP politics from the politics of younger generation seems hard to resolve. It is certainly true that the DPP was a significant force in the initial mobilization surrounding the Sunflower movement and the expansion of the Sunflower movement to beyond just a student movement.
Nevertheless, the DPP itself has come under criticism from students at an early stage in the movement for its interest in the movement in order to co-opt student activist for its electoral campaigns, as part of its attempts to recuperate its untainted image as an “avant-garde” in the Dangwai movement during the 1980s in recent years. Tension between the DPP and student activists is reflected on one hand in the scorn of students for the DPP members whose participation in protests masks their underlying electoral agenda. An example sometimes cited in scorn of the party is DPP members’ apparent logging of time at the occupation site through time cards because of the party’s apparent need to compel members to participate in the protests.
On the other hand, DPP members have sometimes expressed the sentiment that the students were ungrateful towards the DPP in spite the amount of financial resources the DPP sank into supporting student activities and for declaring an end to the occupation on their terms rather than the DPP’s. And as DPP favorite for future presidential candidate Tsai Ying-wen has expressed in a recent Economist article, it is held that one cannot “run a country on the basis of social movements. You have to go back to politics.” 
Another possibility that emerged very early on at the end of the occupation was that a nationwide student coalition would serve to unify disparate student activist groups and prevent fragmentation within the movement. Several groups emerged around the end of the occupation as contenders for that role, the most prominent of which was Democracy Kuroshio; although Democracy Kuroshio also received criticism because its strategy was centered on electoral reform and recall of politicians, a strategy since which time other groups having taken up. However, with the resurgence of the anti-nuclear movement, it seems like the timeframe for a nationwide student coalition to emerge has passed, and it appears unlikely the idea will be taken up again. Some student activity has now become campus-focused, rather than oriented outward to the public at large.
The possibility of a third-party or a political alternative along those lines emerging from the Sunflower movement does not seem likely at present. The movement, though certainly not a mere student movement but involving a variety of civic society actors, is far from concretized enough to pose a challenge to the two-party system of the KMT and DPP. Accordingly, what the future prospects of the movement will be are yet to be seen, but if Taiwan’s manifold social issues are to be addressed, some means to subsume all of these causes into a unified framework of consideration is necessary.
Coda: Democracy in Asia?
A CLAIM MADE VERY EARLY ON within the Sunflower movement was that the movement was not purely for the sake of Taiwan, but for the sake of democracy in Asia; that is, that Taiwanese democracy drawing a line in the sand would establish a precedent for Asian democracy, inclusive of mainland China.
Though one can quite readily point to the presence of one-party governments or a history of recent authoritarianism in mainland China, Korea, Japan, and Singapore, it is hard to judge as to whether the eyes of Asia are on Taiwan’s Sunflower movement in in drawing a line in the sand for democracy.
Apart from lack of western media attention, it is hard as to ascertain the judgments of other powers in the region. So far as Taiwan, Japan, and Korea are American client states in the East Asian region, the response of the American government has been opaque, likely a product of policies of strategic indeterminacy towards China so as to keep China in the dark about potential American responses to its expansion of power in the region.
While supportive mainland Chinese have certainly been participants and guest speakers at Sunflower movement political rallies, if a Wall Street Journal series of man-on-the-street interviews in Beijing is to believed, a number of mainland Chinese do think of the Sunflower movement and Legislative Yuan student occupiers as students gone overboard, in fact, undemocratic.  The most extreme of comparisons is made between the student occupiers and the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. 
What can in fact be said to promulgate in Asia, among countries and territories with majority ethnically Chinese populations such as Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Singapore, is the culturally relativist idea that Asians are simply not cut out for democracy. “Democracy” is, after all, an idea imported from the west. Westerners may be suited for democracy, but Asians are not—by contrast, Asians require firm discipline, for the cultural differences between East and West are too large.
In recent years, some mainland and pro-mainland commentators have, after all, pointed towards the dysfunction of Taiwanese democracy, as an example of how Taiwan, or other states, could do with a more centralized, more authoritarian, and more efficient form of government. Will they be proven right or wrong? The Sunflower movement will surely go down as a case in point.
- Stéphane Corcruff, The Far Eastern Sweet Potato, “Negotiate or Face Revolutionaries,” April 13, 2014, http://fareasternpotato.blogspot.tw/2014/04/corcuff-negotiate-or-face.html
- James Wang, trans. Paul Cooper, Taipei Times, “Roots of repression lie in Ma’s family line,” April 4, 2014, http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/editorials/archives/2014/04/04/2003587220
- J. Michael Cole, China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, “Taipei flirts with ‘authoritarianism lite’ amid political crisis,” May 1, 2014, http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/chinapolicyinstitute/2014/05/01/taipei-flirts-with-authoritarianism-lite-amid-political-crisis/
- The Economist, “When the wind blows: The president bows to street protests against nuclear power,” May 3, 2014, http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21601553-president-bows-street-protests-against-nuclear-power-when-wind-blows
- China Real Time, The Wall Street Journal, “Heard in the Hutong: After Protests, How Chinese View Taiwan,” April 11, 2014, http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2014/04/11/heard-in-the-hutong-after-protests-how-chinese-view-taiwan/
- Amy Lee, South China Morning Post, “’This isn’t the democracy we want’: Some Chinese dismayed by Taiwan students’ occupation of legislature,” March 20, 2014, http://www.scmp.com/news/china-insider/article/1453137/isnt-democracy-we-want-taiwanese-students-occupation-legislature?page=all
About the Author
Brian Hioe is freelancer based in Taipei, a recent graduate of New York University currently studying at National Taiwan Normal University, age 22. In his free time, he enjoys drinking coffee, drinking alcohol, and baring his teeth at monstrous fate. Follow him on Twitter at @brianhioe, find him on Facebook, or e-mail him at email@example.com.