Where Have the Sunflowers Gone?

The Sunflower Movement scored a major success by putting Taiwan back on the map. But it has since split and new forces are seeking to prevent its re-emergence
J. Michael Cole

(Editor’s note: This article was originally published on the China Policy Institute Blog, University of Nottingham, on Sept. 22, 2014.)

The question has been nagging at the edges of my mind ever since it was first thrown at me after I gave a presentation on social movements at a forum organized by SOAS in June: How do we define success in the context of civic activism? Furthermore, how do we evaluate success when the battle over an idea, a policy, continues to rage and has not come to a proper resolution? Having now been asked to share a few thoughts about the Sunflower Movement on the six-month anniversary of the occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, I would posit that while the dispute over the agreement which prompted the activists to do what they did remains unfinished business, the unprecedented occupation itself and the publicity it engendered were, in and of themselves, a great success. In fact, I would argue that the Sunflower Movement was the best thing that happened in and for Taiwan in the past decade.

Defining success

Before critics of such a claim (you will find many of them within the establishment) launch their counteroffensive—the Sunflowers were undemocratic, irrational, emotional, violent, illegal, pawns, and so on—let me qualify my statement. My point is that the Sunflowers’ greatest success was not that it delayed passage of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) by a few months, that it compelled the authorities to explore the possibility of implementing a monitoring mechanism for future agreements with China, or even that it caused a split within the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Though no mean feats, those achievements were at best temporary in nature, and there is now good reason to believe that, having weathered that storm, the Ma Ying-jeou administration intends to return to business as usual by implementing the CSSTA and rushing the follow-on trade-in-goods agreement. The fact that new, far-reaching law enforcement measures have been implemented since April to deal with future unrest certainly reinforces that view. (There is, furthermore, renewed talk about a summit between Ma and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, before Ma steps down in 2016 after completing his two consecutive terms in office. An administration which believes it was neutralized by its opponents probably wouldn’t be contemplating such a controversial meeting.)

Of course, success could be measured on the question of whether the movement had managed to nix the CSSTA altogether, or prevent the Ma administration from signing future such agreements with Beijing. If that is the yardstick by which we measure success, then the Sunflower Movement probably failed. After all, the activists faced an opponent that models itself after Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP), with which it shares highly paternalistic and “soft authoritarian” tendencies. In other words, it—the government—knows what is best for Taiwan, and any disagreement over the direction of its policies is the result of misunderstandings, poor vertical communication, or the “irrationality” of its critics.

Rather, the true success of the Sunflower Movement was its ability to send a powerful signal across Taiwan and, more importantly, to the international community that pressures have been building up within Taiwan. Although there was plenty of evidence of such pressures during 2012 and 2013 (the coincidence with the beginning of Ma’s second term is no accident), it wasn’t until March 2014 and the markedly escalatory actions taken by the Sunflower Movement that the world started to take notice. The emergence of the Sunflower Movement occurred at a time when longstanding opponents of the Ma administration and the KMT which he chairs, such as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), were finding it increasingly difficult to gain traction overseas. This was largely the result of sustained propaganda from Beijing and Taipei, corporate interests, and a premium in foreign capitals on stability and predictability in the Taiwan Strait, with the belief that the KMT was better placed to ensure continuity. Consequently, whenever the DPP or smaller groups in the green camp criticized the Ma administration, their interlocutors saw crass electoral politics or irrationality. In other words, the DPP’s reputation had so suffered that even when its claims were legitimate, its foreign counterparts found it difficult to agree with it. Others may simply have acted on the principle that opposing the KMT (and its allies in the Chinese Communist Party) was inconvenient to business and stability.

Continue to the full article on the CPI Blog.

3 Responses to “Where Have the Sunflowers Gone?”

September 23, 2014 at 4:31 am, Ved Rattan Sethi said:

I think, at least some of the conflicting n diametrically opposed views cud b resolved to some extent if moderates on both sides esp.the Chinese were to be allowed to have some better n effective say at any negotiating table.


September 23, 2014 at 3:17 pm, mike said:

In other words, you think the success of the Sunflower movement was in allowing the DPP to be ignored somewhat less by foreign governments and their diplomats.

I disagree: their success, if success it be, was in pubicly undermining the credibility of the ROC’s two-party democracy. I don’t pay much attention to polls, but I would be somewhat curious to see the results of one that tried to assess the change in party affiliation among the young since the occupation of the Legislature in March. I would guess it is significantly lower than in previous years.


J. Michael Cole

September 23, 2014 at 3:42 pm, J. Michael Cole said:

No; that’s not at all what I’m saying. My point is that the success of the Sunflower movement was in allowing TAIWAN to be ignored somewhat less by foreign governments and their diplomats.


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