by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Brian Hioe

Looking Back on the Past Few Years of Taiwanese Activism

LOOKING BACK on the Sunflower Movement two years later, what can we say? It is, of course, that in some sense the sea-change in Taiwanese politics we have seen in past 2016 elections and nine-in-one elections began with the Sunflower Movement.

The 23 day occupation of the Legislative Yuan by students would seem to be the start of all this. Namely, before that, it was imagined by many that Chinese encroachment upon Taiwanese sovereignty would simply continue to occur without resistance, as facilitated by continued free trade agreements signed with China by a KMT-led administration and the apparent indifference of Taiwanese citizenry. This was thought to be so particularly among young people, who were labelled the soft, complacent, and indifferent “Strawberry Generation.”

Photocredit-CFPCitizen 1985 demonstrations regarding the death of military cadet Hung Chung-Hsiu. Photo credit: CFP

In truth, the Sunflower Movement didn’t come out of nowhere. The unexpected events of March 18th, 2014 brought Taiwanese civil society and Taiwanese youth activists to the attention of Taiwanese society. But we can trace current Taiwanese activism back to the previous two years of activism around issues such as land evictions in Dapu, Miaoli, nuclear energy regarding Nuclear Reactor No. 4 in Gongliao, Chinese “media monopoly” takeover of Taiwanese media, and demonstrations protesting unresolved issues of justice after the death of military cadet Hung Chung-Hsiu under mysterious circumstances, with Hung’s death pointing towards widespread corruption and cover-up within the military.

In particular, the demonstrations prompted by Hung’s death, as largely organized by the Citizen 1985 group which would later be displaced from relevance during the Sunflower Movement, was a foreshadowing of future events to come. But we may trace the origins of Taiwan’s “activist subculture” and the overall events of the Sunflower Movement back to the Wild Strawberry movement in 2008, demonstrating the visit of PRC ARATS chairman Chen Yunlin to Taiwan under the auspices of the Ma administration.

PhotoCreditCNNiReportWild Strawberry demonstrators in 2008. Photo credit: CNN iReport

After attempts at maintaining a sit-in strike in front of the Executive Yuan and Freedom Plaza, the movement dissolved. However, movement participants, who were largely students, went back to their campuses with the notion of developing campus-based activist networks, usually in the form of reading groups. This would be the origin of the campus-based activist networks we saw mobilized to great success in the Sunflower Movement. Visible leader figures in the Sunflower Movement such as student leaders Chen Wei-Ting and Lin Fei-Fan were also participants in the Wild Strawberry Movement.

318 Two Years On

BUT TWO YEARS later, have the aims of the movement been met? Perhaps this is the question we should be asking ourselves two years after 318.

With past presidential elections, we see the unprecedented defeat of the KMT. For the first time in Taiwanese history, the KMT does not control the presidency or the legislature. Though there had been previously one example of a non-KMT president, that being Chen Shui-Bian of the DPP, at no point previous in Taiwanese history had the KMT not controlled the legislature.

Tsai Ing-Wen declaring her presidential victory. Photo credit: Presidential Office

Moreover, with the rise of “Third Force” third parties and the victory of the NPP in nabbing five seats in legislature, we see the literal case of individuals who had been involved in forcibly occupying the legislature as an act of demonstration in 2014 entering legislature again—this time as elected holders of political office.

Yet with the apparent blows dealt against the KMT and the victory of the DPP, some now claim that the time for social movements in Taiwan is over. Social movements are seen as dangerous now, in potentially getting in the way of electoral reforms, or proving disruptive of attempts at maintaining cross-straits stability.

12525208_439035846307652_6945060180729930988_oFreddy Lim of the New Power Party celebrating after his legislative victory. Photo credit: 林昶佐 中正萬華關鍵戰將

Certainly, nobody expects a second Sunflower Movement to occur anytime soon. For one, exhaustion sets in after a social movement on the scale of the Sunflower Movement and in most cases it takes many years for another movement to occur. In August of this past year, we saw the unexpected weeklong occupation of the Ministry of Education by high schoolers to protest pro-China textbook revisions, demonstrating the continued vitality of Taiwanese youth activists. But in many ways, the occupation occurred as a contingent event, an exception to the rule prompted by the suicide of student activist Lin Kuanhua.

However, in reality it is too soon to claim that the aims of the Sunflower Movement have been fulfilled. We see significant gains made against the KMT, but the KMT still exists and though it may not control the presidency or the legislature, it still poses a threat to Taiwanese seeking to defend their sovereignty. The KMT has illustrated many times that it is willing to defy rule of law to accomplish its aims, as we saw in the series of events that prompted the Legislative Yuan occupation and the Ma-Xi summit in Singapore which took place shortly before 2016 elections.

IMG_20150802_161448The occupied Ministry of Education during August 2015. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Likewise, until some means have been arrived at of settling the question of China’s continued territorial claims upon Taiwan and the world’s lack of recognition of Taiwan as nation-state, Taiwan continues to face an existential threat. Taiwan’s existential threats will not go away unless fundamental questions of Taiwan’s status as a nation find some means of address.

Indeed, it is actually a shortcoming of the movement that the Sunflower Movement phrased its demands in terms of a “black box” lack of transparency, rather than addressing deeper questions of free trade itself, or Taiwanese independence. Movement leaders backed away from more controversial stands in order to appeal to the public, even when their private views were far less centrist in nature.

Nevertheless, if the KMT continues to exist and continues to pose a threat to Taiwanese sovereignty, we see backsliding from the DPP on its stances regarding what it will do to preserve Taiwanese sovereignty. For one, Tsai Ing-Wen has indicated that she will conduct cross-strait relations on the basis of the ROC framework. Tsai has also backpedaled on steps taken to address the past crimes of the authoritarian period, in the aim of seeking bipartisan cooperation with the KMT.

What Taiwanese activists were wondering during election is how far backsliding on the part of the DPP would go. Certainly, in many cases, DPP politicians can be as corrupt as KMT ones. Would backsliding be so extreme as that the DPP would become the next enemy of civil society activists, once the threat of the KMT was neutralized? Many Taiwanese activists were discussing this during election season in January.

IMG_20140404_191407The occupied Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Movement. Photo credit: Brian Hioe

So, to begin with, it may require oversight on the part of civil society activists in order to make sure the DPP does not move too far to the political right. But it is also that the same fundamental questions remain unresolved from the Sunflower Movement to the present about Taiwan’s existence as a nation-state. And two years on from 318, this is what we may still be in need of reflecting upon.

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