Blaming the Sunflower Movement for the 521 MassacrePro-government pundits are accusing young activists of warping social values and creating an environment in which extreme acts of violence are possible
Ever since the Sunflower Movement burst into the chambers of the Legislative Yuan on March 18, their detractors in government and the media have done their very best to discredit the activists’ efforts. Some accused the protesters of violence, of drunkenness, or even of engaging in orgies. Others more incredibly compared them to Nazis, even to al-Qaeda, the international terrorist organization. To this list of absurdities we can now add remarks by a few individuals in the wake of the terrible subway knife attack on May 21, which left four passengers dead and 22 injured, some of them critically.
The accusations during the occupation of the legislature were more than simple false analogies by legislators and hyperbolically inclined talking heads (KMT Legislator Chiang Hui-chen [江惠貞] made the reference to al-Qaeda). For one thing, they were disrespectful to the countless of people who fell victim to the abuses of Nazi expansionism and the Wahhabist ideology that convinced Osama bin Laden and his cohorts of the virtues of crashing commercial aircraft into skyscrapers. Given that the body count resulting from the occupation of the legislature was exactly zero, the comparisons were in fact nothing short of libelous and were clearly intended to cast a pall on the motivations and accomplishments of the student-led movement.
The occupation has ended, but certain groups of people associated with the government have not relented in their efforts to undermine the reputation of the movement, whose impact on the future of Taiwanese politics has yet to be fully understood.
So it wasn’t entirely surprising when soon after Cheng Chieh (鄭捷), a 21-year-old student at Tunghai University in Taichung, began slashing with a watermelon knife at people inside a subway car on Taipei’s Bannan MRT Line, the same pundits accused the Sunflower Movement of being responsible for the gruesome attack. Leading the charge was former KMT legislator Chiu Yi (邱毅), a controversial figure who had no compunction in appearing on China’s CCTV television to spew vitriol at the students during the occupation (and whose inability to distinguish between bananas and sunflowers engendered no small amount of comedy). Writing on his Facebook page on the evening of the massacre, Chiu opined that the actions of the Sunflower Movement had created “a society of lawlessness” and an environment conducive to violence. By “twisting social values,” Chiu continued, the movement had made it likelier that young people with “extremist” or “anti-social personalities” would act on their impulses.
Footage of Cheng in action, who did not show any emotion as he hacked at his victims — indeed a sign of anti-social behavior — was in stark contrast with the desire for justice that has animated the members of the Sunflower Movement and many of its precursor organizations, and the emotion with which they carried out their self-assigned duty. But for a man who cannot tell the difference between bananas and sunflowers, such distinctions were evidently of little importance. In his book, nihilists and idealists are apparently one and the same. Chiu also did not seem particularly interested in the fact that Cheng had already been identified by school personnel as a loner with possible anti-social tendencies, well before the activists occupied the legislature.
Not to be bested, followers of the White Justice Social Alliance, a group that emerged from obscurity in March to support the administration and (ostensibly) law-enforcement authorities during the occupation, also weighed in on the tragedy with comments on the Alliance’s Facebook page mirroring those made by Chiu. Here again, the Sunflowers were to blame for the murders. Meanwhile the China Times, a pro-China publication that relentlessly attacked the movement throughout the standoff at the legislature, published an unsigned article berating a group of activists who have mobilized for the preservation of the Losheng Sanatorium. Their crime was to hold signs of their cause in a subway car as the murders were taking place. Only the article, which called the activists “selfish” and “cold-hearted,” didn’t mention that the group were on a different MRT line (Xinzhuang) and could not have been aware of what was occurring simultaneously at Jiangzicui Station, on the Bannan line.
The administration and its supporters have made it clear that they will not hesitate to manipulate the truth in order to discredit a movement that continues to threaten the government’s legitimacy — not because it is violent, but because it is heterogeneous, “colorless” politically, and has wide appeal within the population. From their portrayal of the Sunflowers as a creation of the Democratic Progressive Party or of its former chairperson Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) to hyperbolic comparisons to the Nazis and a deadly terror organization, the propaganda machine has been in full swing as it seeks to bury the movement under myriad allegations. (For a brief period an entry about the incident on the Chinese version of Wikipedia linked Cheng to both Tsai Ing-wen’s foundation and the Black Island Youth Alliance, which eventually merged into the Sunflower Movement.) Rather than meet the challenge with ideas and policies that are agreeable to the public, the pro-government side, if not the government itself, has resorted to desperate slander and disinformation. Sadly for Taiwan, such behavior gets plenty of airtime.
It will be a while yet before we can make sense of the murders, the first deadly attack in Taipei’s MRT system since its launch in 1996. Some are already digging into the perpetrator’s past for telltale signs, pointing to his asocial tendencies and his repeated claim that he would do “something big” some day. Others are falling back on the theory that his interest in violent videogames may have been a factor, a not unusual reaction in the face of the inexplicable. But one thing is certain: blaming a group of idealist university students animated by the desire to vouchsafe their country’s democracy for the 521 rampage does not serve the truth and will not help us shed light on that lone young man’s motivations.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.