Beyond The Sunflower Movement: Present Issues for Future Taiwanese Activism

The occupation of the legislature was only the first phase in the rise of civil society; we can only guess what will happen next

While things are relatively quiet for the time being, Taiwan’s recent political crisis is far from over. The Sunflower movement’s twenty-four-day occupation of the Legislative Yuan in March and April was expressive of a variety of social discontents, not only stemming from the issue of Taiwan-China relations, but also Taiwanese domestic issues of democracy and the lingering remnants of its authoritarian past.

After the withdrawal of the students from the Legislative Yuan, the attention of social movement actors very quickly swung in the direction of Taiwan’s longstanding anti-nuclear movement. Indeed, the anti-nuclear movement had previously served as an incubator for many of the structures and informal organizing networks which gave rise to the Sunflower Movement. As 70% of Taiwanese oppose the use of nuclear energy but the government remains intransigent on the issue, the anti-nuclear movement was, too, a question of democracy.

During the course of Lin I-Hsiung’s (林義雄) eight-day hunger strike in protest against nuclear energy that was at the epicenter of the renewed anti-nuclear movement, the explosiveness of the situation was such that some were speaking of revolution in the streets, with the “blood of the martyr…ignit[ing] the souls of Taiwanese” should the respected political figure have died. But with the end of Lin I-Hsiung’s hunger strike it would also appear that the tensions have ceased.

As social actors and student activists alike now ponder their next move, perhaps the present moment proves one suitable for critical reflection for the next round of social activism. For by no means has the struggle reached its end just yet.

In opening, we might ponder the origins of the student activists who were the driving force behind the Sunflower Movement.

In recent years, some have spoke of the “Strawberry generation” in reference to the supposed “softness” and apathy of the current generation of Taiwanese youth. In relation to the current generation’s supposed lack of interest in political activism, such criticism sometimes came from former participants in the “Wild Lily” student movement of 1990 and the “Dangwai (黨外)” movements of the 1980s whose actions had been instrumental in Taiwan’s transition from one-party rule to democracy.

The immediate effect of the seizure of the Legislative Yuan through apparently spontaneous student ac-tion was to shatter such perceptions. But if we look closer, we can find the origins of the Sunflower movement in the single-issue activism that rose to popularity among young people with widespread disil-lusionment with electoral politics in preceding years. Namely, after so many years spent attempting to form a second party against one-party KMT rule, at a certain point, the perception of entrenchment within the electoral system led younger activists to view the DPP with suspicion. It was held that the DPP was a more progressive actor than the KMT, but the DPP was nonetheless thought of as being interested in so-cial issues solely for the sake of garnering votes. The need of the DPP to develop a party structure in order to continually mobilize a voter electorate was also viewed negatively in comparison to the party ma-chine of the KMT.

We then might point to the origins of the Sunflower movement in the previous flaring up of the Taiwan-China issue in 2008, the “Wild Strawberry” movement whose name was both a reference to the “Wild Lily” movement and ironic rejoinder to the “Strawberry generation” pejorative. The “Wild Strawberry” movement was a reaction against the Ma administration’s suppression of Taiwanese national symbols with the occasion of PRC ARATS chairman Chen Yunlin’s visit to Taiwan and in that way a reaction against its pro-China policies.

One can see the antecedents of the Sunflower movement very directly in the Wild Strawberry movement. The Wild Strawberry movement began with a sit-in in front of the Executive Yuan, which quickly led to similar student sit-ins in other locations across Taiwan, not unlike the means by which the Sunflower be-gan with centralized action in Taipei and spread to other urban locations. More significantly, after the eventual forced eviction of student activists from a subsequent occupation site in Liberty Square and the petering out of momentum, Wild Strawberry student activists returned to their campuses and began the organizing of campus-based study groups to consider Taiwanese social issues. This was certainly one of the critical factors behind the campus-based networks which were later deployed in the Sunflower move-ment.

As has been more widely reported on, more directly behind the Sunflower movement has been the orientation of student activists towards the nuclear issue and the issue of forced housing evictions in Miaoli in the last two years. Again, these also provided a training ground for student activists to hone their skills and for the formation of networks along which news is spread and rapid mobilizations organized. Indeed, that the Miaoli housing evictions were a series of continually escalating events that sometimes required quick action certainly led to the capacity of the Sunflower movement to act at a moment’s notice. And that the momentum behind the Sunflower rapidly transitioned to the nuclear issue demonstrates the means by which the nuclear issue, though an expression of “single issue politics”, the issue of Taiwanese democ-racy and the nuclear issue became intertwined. In some way, with the disillusionment of students from electoral politics, the nuclear issue became an expression of the same concerns and discontents that would sweep through society on the night of March 18, 2014, with the occupation of the Legislative Yuan.

However, more must be said about the disillusionment of students with electoral politics, the divisions that exist among the students themselves, between students and civic society activists, between the stu-dents and society at large, and, more particularly, their split with the DPP.

Though part of the appeal of the Sunflower movement student activists to society at large has been their youth, perceived idealism, and the articulacy of it’s public faces, Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆)and Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷)of the “Black Island Nation Youth Alliance (黑色島國青年陣線)” that fronted the Legislative Yuan occupation, the students were far from unequivocal themselves. Some have pointed towards the prominent gap between the respectable face the “Black Island Nation Youth Alliance” has attempted to project towards wider society and splinter groups as the “Untouchables’ District,” which embraced a much more theatrical, overtly radical public identity reminiscent of, for example, the American Occupy movement or the anti-globalization movement in the 1990s.

These divisions raise the question of leadership. Though some student activists were certainly galvanized into action by way of the “Black Island Nation Youth Alliance,” it was more common among the longer-standing student organizers who were by no means new to social activism to express discontents with the leadership of the “Black Island Youth Nation Alliance.” It was understood that Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting were not necessarily the true leaders of the group themselves but its most prominent spokesmen, and understood that it was necessary. if the movement was to be effective, to conceal the group’s deci-sion-making process from the police or government. But activists were not happy that a relatively small group of people were making decisions for the movement as a whole. Some students also viewed the “demands” made by the “Black Island Nation Youth Alliance” as relatively limited in scope and hence were not happy that an end was declared to the occupation of the Legislative Yuan on the grounds of a solution which banked upon preexisting splits within the KMT itself.

Indeed, the relatively top-down structure of leadership and its capacity to solidify a concrete strategy very early on in the movement and stick to it with a fair amount of consistency, precisely that of banking upon splits within the KMT, was very probably a major factor in the success of the Sunflower movement. By contrast, one might raise Occupy Wall Street in New York City in 2011, which was never able to concre-tize any demand, whose lack of any leadership structure led to an inability to make decisions or in some cases the “tyranny of structurelessness,” and had no planned endgame—therefore, the Occupy Wall Street occupation of Zuccotti Park ended with police eviction during a point at which participants were dwin-dling, public apathy had set in, and winter was rendering the continued occupation more and more dan-gerous to participants. Accordingly, subsequent attempts to retake the park were unsuccessful and the movement’s impact was largely in its raising the message of social inequality globally rather than by way of anything the movement directly accomplished. Though participants of the Sunflower movement have looked to Occupy Wall Street for inspiration in labeling their own occupation “#OccupyCongress” or “#OccupyLY” on social media early in the movement, perhaps the Occupy movement would better serve as an object lesson for the Sunflower movement.

Nevertheless, as with Occupy Wall Street, here one must point to both sides of things. Whereas Occupy Wall Street had no demand and expressed a wide-ranging, sometimes inchoate political agendas, precise-ly the strength of the movement and its appeal globally was in the utopianism it evinced in its attempt to embody the democracy it sought to establish. The Sunflower movement did not capture the attention of the world the way Occupy Wall Street did, Taiwan, of course, being not so globally influential a country as the United States. But it remains to be questioned the extent to which a movement which sought to oppose “Black Box” government unaccountability and lack of transparency must utilize means not entirely transparent to social activists themselves, even when strategic planning must sometimes necessarily involve secrecy.

In regards to the relation of the Sunflower movement student activists and civic society activists, despite the lag in which civic society activists were largely trying to keep apace with the actions of students, one can point to successful cooperation but also some limitations. The high point of the cooperation between students and civic society activists was probably the March 30th demonstration of 500,000 upon the Presidential Residence. In particular, this demonstration was the successful realization of the extraordinary set of circumstances in which student activists in the Legislative Yuan could declare a demonstration three days in advance, funding filtered in from donors, sometimes anonymous, and subsequently over 2% of the Taiwanese population could descend upon Taipei for a highly successful demonstration. Probably the set of circumstances through which this demonstration came together will be one for the history books.

Within Taiwanese social activism, a generational gap exists between younger student activists and an old-er generation in their forties and above whose activism is largely oriented around NGOs. For some years, before the rise of the DPP to electoral power, civic society activism among adult members of society was carried out through a series of NGOs. Though some have spoken of the sidelining of NGOs with the presidential victory of DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁)and the appointment of high-profile NGO members to government posts, with recent years, the disillusionment of civic society activists with the DPP has also led to a renewal or at least the persistence of non-electoral NGO-based activism.

The cooperation of students and civic society activists was successful where students could lead and then civic society activists would provide necessary back-up, in providing resources, utilizing their own networks of communication and mobilization, and acting as centers of gravity for student activist networks to orient around whereas student activist networks were sometimes more fluid and loose because of their lack of organizational institutionalization. In this way, NGOs acted so as to supplement the shortcomings of student activists.

Yet the model of students leading and NGOs providing needed support probably demonstrates certain limitations whereas the transition of the Sunflower movement to the anti-nuclear movement is concerned. In some sense, the transition of momentum from the Sunflower movement to the anti-nuclear movement was spearheaded by NGOs that had long been addressing the nuclear issue, and which sought to resolve the anti-nuclear movement so as to dissolve the anti-nuclear issue into the broader cause of the Sunflower movement. This was in order that the energy spent on the anti-nuclear movement could be redirected to-wards the Sunflower movement or subsequent movements.

Nonetheless, this may not have had the desired effect—instead, after reaching a fever pitch during Lin I-Hsiung’s hunger strike, both movements have now quieted. Both movements were already reaching the limits of the amount of activity they could maintain in that moment in time. The weakness of one side was the weakness of the other, as well. So while a model of cooperation had been achieved, what a future happy synthesis of student and civic society activism may require is closer attentiveness between both actors to each other’s strengths and limitations in developing the capacity to supplement the shortcomings of one side or another. And whereas both sides are facing the same weakness, perhaps it is in fact neces-sary to slow down and reconsider things on both sides; after all, moments of regroupment, too, are vital for sustaining long-term activity.

The capacity of students to influence the public at large has, of course, been significant. However, what also bears pointing out is the degree to which students have also been unable to capture the sympathy a portion of the public at large. Quite obviously, the students did not capture the sympathy of KMT sup-porters, as reflected in a several protests aimed at starting a counter-movement as the purported “Wild Carnation” movement or the “New May 4th” movement.

Namely, the students’ actions were too radical for some members of the public. This is most directly evident in the attempt of students to occupy the Executive Yuan as an escalating action on March 23rd, after little response from President Ma after the occupation had lasted for a week. Despite that the police force subsequently used to evict student occupiers has been labeled by some commentators as the largest concerted use of police force since the end of martial law, sections of the public who had previously been in support of the students reacted against them, viewing this attempt at occupation as illegitimate, a “wrong step” because of its premeditated, clearly planned nature whereas the Legislative Yuan occupation ap-pears to have been spontaneous. Some students were against the occupation action themselves on similar grounds; again, the split between those that desired for the Sunflower movement to present a respectable public face and those who thought this too conservative has already been mentioned.

Though in this way, it is not as if the students have full agreement among themselves either, it is still to be seen how students will develop a means by which aims of theirs viewed as currently too radical for the populace at large. The most prominent of these, of course, is the issue of pro forma versus de facto Taiwanese independence which is the undertow of the current political crisis and more generally of Taiwan-ese politics. But it may be impossible to appeal to each and every member of society.

Lastly, one must speak of the division between student activists and the DPP, of which will most definitely have lasting repercussions for future social activism in Taiwan.

While certainly, the support of the DPP was a major factor behind the eventual expansion of the Sunflow-er movement to broader social participation from more than just students, among English-language Taiwan commentators there has been some debate as to what extent the DPP has played a role in the success of the Sunflower movement. Let it be said that it is probable that the DPP had a major role in the Sun-flower movement in mobilization organizational resources to back it, but by no means is the Sunflower movement reducible to DPP support either, as KMT commentators have often claimed.

Nevertheless, while it is unclear whether how much of the momentum behind the Sunflower movement will be directed towards electoral ends, as is already happening to some extent, a substantial gap exists between students and the DPP. Very probably no amount of attempts by the DPP to associate itself with students will erase or efface this gap. Though DPP presence at the Legislative Yuan occupation site was prominent from the second and third days of the occupation onwards and DPP legislators often played a role in personally attempting to shield students, sometimes suffering personal injury, students were im-mediately questioning of DPP motives as to whether the DPP was merely attempting to co-opt the Sun-flower movement for electoral purposes. This was stated in a number of student speeches at the Legisla-tive Yuan occupation site. Stories, perhaps exaggerated or apocryphal, circulate among student activists that DPP members were logging time spent at the Legislative Yuan site through time cards because of its members’ apparent unwillingness to spend time at the Legislative Yuan occupation site, and of DPP members who were ungrateful towards student activists for calling an end to the occupation without bene-fits to the DPP despite the resources the DPP freely offered to the students.

On the other side of things, no less a prominent figure than DPP favorite for presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen has stated that, “You cannot run a country on the basis of social movements. You have to go back to politics.” Maybe so. But even the Dangwai movement to form a second party in the 1970s and 1980s from which the roots of the DPP can be traced was contingent upon non-electoral, social movement activism in light of the then-impossibility of non-KMT electoral politics, albeit social movement activism directed towards fundamentally electoral ends. If the DPP has forgotten that, then that is the sign that it has truly become just another political party, and the gap between it and students will be irreparable.

Perhaps this is the question at hand. The threat of fragmentation in social movements is real. There may be no single formula which can be applied across the board to social movements, but the risk ever present at hand in social movements is that of fragmentation and subsequent loss of energy. One requires some means to channel the undirected spontaneous energy of a social movement into channels by which results can be achieved—this may be more narrowly a political party, or it may be a broad, but tacitly agreed up-on framework of considering a social issue.

There has been some turn towards electoral activism. However, this has not been along the lines of back-ing the DPP but more often has been along the lines of removing unfit or corrupt KMT legislatures through recall, as in the actions of the “Democracy Kuroshio” student coalition immediately after the end of the Legislative Yuan occupation or more recently through the “Appendectomy Project”.

Tension between the DPP and student activists will likely persist, however the DPP might want to depict its aims as synonymous with the students in order to recapture past glory, or on the flipside, by way of how the KMT would like to depict the DPP as behind the students in order to discredit both. Whether fears of co-optation have grounding or not, student activists, if they are to achieve their desired aims, will have to tread the waters with the DPP carefully. Perhaps if students are to achieve optimal odds of suc-cess for their goals, the strategy to take would be to advantage of offered DPP resources when needed, but also refusing to view the use of DPP resources as a debt they now owe to the DPP—even if this means “biting the hand that feeds you”. After all, while there is actually a number of students protestors who are the children of KMT supporters and members in defiance of their parents, more commonly are the student protestors are the children of DPP supporters and members. Sometimes for a generation to surpass its parents requires a degree of ungratefulness.

In the current lull of activity, the next step of Taiwanese social activism remains to be seen. To some ex-tent, the ball is currently in the Ma administration’s court, as while both the Sunflower movement and the anti-nuclear movement have made their voices heard quite clearly, it remains for the Ma administration to formulate a response—or at least a response more coherent than its current one.

The Ma administration and the KMT’s PR management during the course of the Sunflower movement has been grossly incompetent, often accomplishing little except the inflaming of public opinion. Exam-ples range from earlier comparisons of student protestors to Al-Qaeda and more recent claims that the Sunflower movement was a coup d’etat by KMT members to the outright denial of use of any violence whatsoever on the March 30th attempt to occupy the Executive Yuan and subsequent use of force by the police despite the plethora of photographic evidence to the contrary then circulating on the Internet. In-deed, while one cannot lay full accountability for the gaffes of various individual functionaries or KMT party members at the doorstep of the Ma administration as a whole, in view of its generally poor man-agement of events thus far, it is hard to think that the Ma administration will not do something once more inciting of the public sooner or later which will be motivating of future action.

But what remains to do until then is to deliberate the next step, to see what has been accomplished, and what has not. And as the broader crisis of Taiwanese society of which the Sunflower movement and anti-nuclear movement has been expressions of has not yet resolved itself, we shall certainly see.

Brian Hioe is freelancer based in Taipei, a recent graduate of New York University currently studying at National Taiwan Normal University.  

[1]PTT post by Evan Yang on April 22, 2014, translated by Sunflower Movement 太陽花學運 on Facebook, April 23, 2014, <https://www.facebook.com/sunflowermovement/posts/326372584154570?stream_ref=10>.

[2] 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>.

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