Taiwan’s Global Youth Movement

The Sunflower Movement presented a sophisticated understanding and representation of globalization and the implications of trade
J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan

The Sunflower Movement presented a much more sophisticated understanding and representation of globalization than we have ever heard from the government

During and after the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan to protest the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) government’s handling of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), poorly informed and disingenuous critics rushed to launch attacks against the young leaders of the movement. One of the most common criticisms was that the protesters were “anti-globalization.”

For example, in a signed editorial in the Want China Times, Pan Hua-sheng (潘華昇) stated, “The Sunflower movement can be described as anti-globalization, formed by a number of ‘China skeptics’ who have used a lazy packaged description of the pact so that the movement can trigger huge momentum during a short period of time.”

In calling the protesters anti-globalization, critics like Pan were clearly trying to paint them as radical, unrealistic, and potentially dangerous to Taiwan’s well being. This criticism demonstrates a very poor understanding of both globalization and the Sunflower Movement.

First, the critics attempt to reduce the meaning and process of globalization down to only free trade. This reductionist approach is neither accurate nor helpful. Globalization involves much more than trade. Globalization is not some autonomous force that controls us; it is, rather, a process that we control. And this process simultaneously constructs and is constructed by a complex web of social, political, cultural, and economic interactions. In practical terms the process of globalization involves communication and interaction across traditional state boundaries, and most importantly brings people together to better understand that although they are different, they are also connected and have shared opportunities, risks, and responsibilities.

Globalization, as a process, is neither inherently negative nor inherently positive. Global interactions have the ability to generate negative outcomes as much as they have the ability to generate positive outcomes. These outcomes depend on the efforts of people across the globe to play an active role in the process and to hold their governments accountable for their actions.

I cannot imagine a greater demonstration of this notion of globalization that what we saw from the Sunflower Movement. These young people were masterful in their messaging and use of communication technology. They were constantly blasting their message across the globe through the use of both more traditional media outlets and newer social media. They were simultaneously translating their press releases, their analyses, and their updates of the movement into multiple languages to have the greatest global impact. Most importantly, they were representing an idea and transmitting a message that most definitely transcends borders and connects with people across the globe.

Their message was not that they are anti-globalization; it was much more nuanced than that. Their message was that globalization, or at least globalization represented in the form of free trade, is not inherently good. It cannot be presented as a panacea for all social and political ills. Trade can have positive effects, to be sure. But poorly negotiated trade agreements, just like any poorly negotiated business deal, can cause harm. A bad free trade deal can have devastating effects on the most vulnerable members of any society. A government that negotiates a trade deal without listening to the voices of its people, or without carefully considering the impact of the deal on its citizens is irresponsible and illegitimate. The Sunflower protesters were speaking to this issue and were and representing the vulnerable people, not just in Taiwan, but across the globe.

In conveying this message, the protesters did Taiwan and the global community an immense favor. They drew attention to both the anti-democratic behavior of the Ma government and to the potential risks associated with blindly reducing globalization to free trade and promising that free trade will inevitably help everybody. They represented the most common fears and frustrations of people in Taiwan and across the globe. And they demonstrated the intellectualism and cosmopolitanism of Taiwan’s young people, who are much more globally aware, and who have the ability to communicate across borders much more effectively than their critics.

In recent years I have on several occasions had the pleasure bringing students from the U.S. to Taiwan. I introduced them to the nation’s politics, society, and culture. Most importantly, I introduced them to Taiwanese college students. Although I probably should not have been, I was consistently surprised at how quickly these students connected. They spent time together discussing their shared interests and their feelings about classes, professors, and college bureaucracy. Naturally they talked about sports, music, fashion, dating, and food.

But perhaps most importantly, they talked about their common aspirations and fears. They talked about the economy, about money, and most immediately of having to move back in with mom and dad after graduation if they couldn’t get a good job. Of course these students recognized the differences in their cultures and lifestyles, but these differences appeared minimal and seemed more like a backdrop to the many more things they shared in common.

It should not be surprising then that the Sunflower Movement was truly global in form and in content. The Taiwanese students are global in the same way that they are democratic; they have never known anything else. Global interactions and democracy are both natural and essential to them. For that reason, a student or any other person in another country did not have to know a great deal about Taiwan to receive and understand the message. The threats they highlighted include the undemocratic behavior of a government, the dominance of big business interests in determining the country’s economic priorities and economic behavior, and the increasing vulnerability of the working people, the middle class, and the young, whose voices are typically not included in the decision making process.

The message resonated with the young people I teach because they saw other young people standing up and addressing issues they think and care about. We were fortunate to have one of the student leaders, Wei Yang (魏揚), visit our campus in the U.S. Again, our students immediately connected with him and his message. While I believe they were somewhat in awe of what he had accomplished, they saw nothing alien about him, nothing so foreign about his message that they couldn’t relate. Quite the contrary, the questions they asked him related as much to his broader perceptions of globalization, democracy, and justice as they did to specific events on the ground in Taiwan. Even our small-town local newspaper recognized the universality of his message when they published the headline, “Taiwanese Protest Leader Visits AC [Austin College]; Urges Vigilance to Protect Democracy.”

In short, the Sunflower Movement presented a much more sophisticated understanding and representation of globalization and the implications of trade than we have ever heard from the Ma government. The movement used positive components of globalization, including sophisticated means of global communication and a globally relevant message, to challenge potentially negative forces of globalization.

And their message was very clear. They are not anti-trade, but they recognized the potential pitfalls of the CSSTA. They understand that we are all connected in this global web, and because they are democrats they believe we have both the ability and the responsibility to act to make globalization work for us. Their movement demonstrated that it is essential that we communicate and cooperate with each other and that we hold our governments accountable to ensure that our interactions cause more benefit than harm. I am confident that the leaders and participants in this movement will continue to effectively convey this message and act upon their beliefs. And that, dear critics, is globalization.

Donald Rodgers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Austin College

Comments are welcome, but will be moderated. Remarks containing abusive language, personal attacks or self-promotion will not be published. We encourage healthy discussion and, above all, tolerance of other's views.