Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement

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Following the massive student-led “Sunflower Movement” against a controversial trade agreement with China, the TPP can expect a double dose of public scrutiny in Taiwan. (Photo: Glenn Smith)

Taiwanese students occupied their parliament on March 18—a first in the island’s history. For 24 days, until April 10, people of all ages and walks of life came to support the protesters by surrounding the government building. The focus of the protests was rather prosaic: more transparency in the proposed trade deal between Taipei and Beijing.

In Taipei, news of this political action, dubbed the Sunflower Student Movement, was hard to miss. Evening TV broadcasts led with live video from inside the Legislative Yuan showing impassioned speeches by student leaders. Lin Fei-fan, in his trademark khaki army jacket, and Chen Wei-ting, in his black Fuck-the-Government T-shirt—the former of the department of political science at National Taiwan University and the latter of the department of sociology at National Tsing Hua University—particularly captivated audiences. Talk show hosts invited protesters to debate their critics. Newspapers scrutinized exchanges between students and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou and officials of his party, the Kuomintang (KMT).

More than a quarter of a million people came for a first-hand look during the Sunflowers’ three-week occupation. On one day alone, the government tallied 150,000 protesters, a low-ball count by the police. That was on March 30, when a mass rally brought supporters from around the island to experience what one writer has called a “carnival of democracy.”

A Brief Tour

The Sunflower encampment completely encircled the Legislative Yuan, and it grew in an organic, ad hoc manner, with much of the activity focused along narrow, leafy Qingdao East Road on the north and the broader, treeless Jinan Road on the south. 

On arriving at the foot of Qingdao East Road, visitors encountered an orientation booth staffed by students wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with three Chinese characters—wo bu fu, literally, “I no serve”—also ungrammatical in Mandarin. The phrase was a corruption of gungmin bufutsung—or, in English, civil disobedience. In the distance was the Legislative Yuan’s north gate, the epicenter of the protest, surrounded by TV vans topped with satellite dishes. This was close as supporters could get to the students who had barricaded themselves inside.

Along Qingdao East Road were hundreds of posters lambasting President Ma for his political and economic embrace of China. Ma was depicted performing all manner of sexual favors for his Chinese counterparts, and his portrait was digitally morphed with that of China’s deceased Great Helmsman and dubbed “Ma Zedong.” The president’s surname, Ma, means “horse” in Chinese, and this proved a goldmine for graphic artists. Most messages were blunt, such as a ceramic toilet bowl on the sidewalk with a pink horse’s head sticking out. Other posters called Ma the “9-percent president,” a reference to his ratings in a much-cited opinion poll.

Throughout the three-week siege, the protesters demonstrated an impressive command of logistics. At the north gate, for instance, medical staff commandeered the guardhouse for use as one of Sunflowers’ many clinics. White-clad doctors and nurses loitered about. “No photos,” a sign read, and understandably so, as these adult volunteers were risking their careers. To maintain order, students roped off lanes for medical emergencies and supply chains. Everywhere were makeshift amenities: kitchens and recycling centers, libraries and art studios, stations for recharging electronic gear and nurseries for the kids. Up and down Qingdao Road were dormitories, male and female. Volunteer crews managed the bedding, airing it in the afternoon by draping it over the walls of the Legislative Yuan. Other volunteers held sign-up sheets for showers made available by local residents.

Also nearby, in the middle of Qingdao East Road, was a stage with an open microphone, where people gave speeches on topics ranging from the international to the local, which a phalanx of TV crews dutifully recorded, with the besieged Legislative Yuan as a backdrop.

As the protest dragged on from March to April, the boundary between “inside and outside” was remarkably porous. Movement leaders came and went as they pleased, and inside the Legislative Yuan their only defenses were piles of tables and swivel chairs. The students could have been easily dispatched by the lightest of police forces. Ma demonstrated herculean restraint on behalf of his young antagonists.

Then there were the crowds of supporters. An early morning visitor had to tiptoe around students tucked in sleeping bags unfurled on collapsed cardboard boxes. Many were in groups, their campsites marked with signs declaring their academic affiliation: sociology students of some local university, for example, or overseas students from Hong Kong. By noon, Qingdao East Road began filling with adult supporters, many coming in teams wearing identical T-shirts or headbands made especially for the occasion. There were many special interest groups: parents against government violence against students, anti-nuclear coalitions, farm associations, gay rights groups, Buddhist monks, nursing associations and more. Numbers grew into the evening as workers joined after leaving their office jobs. Sometimes, in the evenings, celebrities would appear, and singers performed unplugged versions of their songs.

Along the Legislative Yuan’s southern facing utility entrances on Jinan Road, the center of activity was a canopied commons where meetings were held. Student leaders would pose questions and solicit opinions from the audience while others recorded the results on whiteboards. In the later days of the protest, an elaborate system of hand signals was introduced to make the process even more inclusive.

The police presence was more visible on Jinan Road. Yet most of the time, they had little to do, as relations between police and protesters were decidedly placid, if not cordial. In sun and rain, police officers stood shoulder to shoulder, armed with shields and wooden staff, along the edge of barricades. Every few hours, the police changed shifts, and prompted cheers—not jeers—from the throngs of onlookers.

On April 7, from inside the Legislative Yuan, the student leaders announced they would withdraw at 6 p.m. on April 10, ending their occupation after exactly 585 hours.The next day, teams began to remove the posters and catalog them at the request of scholars at Taiwan’s government-funded Academia Sinica. Protest infrastructure was dismantled and disappeared, but throngs of supporters still arrived. Tens thousand or more were present at the back gate of the Legislative Yuan when the students finally emerged.

If anything, the gala sendoff the Sunflower movement leaders received on April 10 resembled a university graduation ceremony.Dusk was falling at 6 p.m. as they squeezed through the wall of police guarding the Legislative Yuan’s back gate. Holding freshly cut sunflowers high above their heads, they mounted a stage erected for the occasion. One by one they gave speeches, some even thanking their mothers and fathers for their understanding. Next came the professors, NGO representatives, and lawyers that had advised them during the siege. The festivities lasted long into the night.

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(Photo: Glenn Smith)

The Meaning of the Protest

The students were demanding government transparency in the review of a trade bill between Taiwan and China. “Oppose the Trade Pact, Save Taiwan” and “Protect our Democracy, Retract the Trade Pact” were the key slogans on display throughout the protest. The trade pact was called a Black Box to symbolize the lack of transparency by which President Ma and his KMT party were pushing the Cross Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) through the Legislative Yuan.

Final ratification of the CSSTA was filibustered for nearly a year by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) after the diplomatic proxies of Taiwan and China—the Straits Exchange Foundation and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits—signed the agreement in Shanghai in June 2013.

The CSSTA, which regulates service industries, is an extension of an earlier pact, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), which covers the trade of products and commodities, in place since 2010. The students’ objections to the CSSTA echo those of U.S. critics of other free-trade agreements.The CSSTA, in their view, would benefit a minority of wealthy business owners while hurting a majority of small entrepreneurs and wage earners.

Student activists cited the findings of the Chung-Hua Institute for Economic Research, which estimated that the CSSTA would increase Taiwan’s GDP growth by a measly 0.025-0.034 percent. That was a small return considering that the CSSTA would bring Taiwan’s small, family-run service providers into direct competition with China’s large-scale, state-run enterprises.

That is where things stood on March 17. The CSSTA was scheduled for a final three-day reading in the Legislative Yuan. But, in a ham-fisted move, KMT Legislator and CSSTA chair Chang Ching-chung abruptly suspended the review and declared the agreement ready for a vote for ratification. With a KMT majority in the legislature, the CSSTA was guaranteed to pass.

The next day several hundred protesters, most affiliated with the Democratic Front Against the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement, assembled outside the gates of the Legislative Yuan. The plan was to storm the law-making body at 9 p.m.National Chenchi University sociology student Tseng Po-yu told the Taipei Times, “Little did we know that hundreds of protesters were willing to climb over the wall…when we issued the call.”The students overwhelmed the Legislative Yuan’s light security detail, entered the main chamber, used furniture to barricade themselves inside, and fended off attempts to expel them.

Public reaction at first was muted. Transparency in government and parliamentary procedure are not emotionally charged causes. Yet, despite this being the first time their government had been occupied by protesters, most people assumed the action would simply fade away. And it might have, had not a second group of students attempted to occupy the nearby Executive Yuan on March 23, only to be forcibly removed by police wielding batons and firing water cannons.

Now the public was outraged. TV news showed footage of the street battle, ennobling the protesters as martyrs. A florist donated a bundle of sunflowers, intended as a symbol of transparency, and reporters gave the protest a name: the Sunflower Student Movement.

The students turned to social media to garner public support. In a single three-hour period, a crowd-funding website collected NT$6.74 million to pay for advertising, including a full-page spot in the New York Times international edition entitled “Democracy at 4 am,” showing the students being hosed by water cannons at the Executive Yuan.

Crowds encircled the Legislative Yuan. A mass rally was called for March 30, and several hundred thousand demonstrators clad in black converged on Ketagalan Boulevard facing the Presidential Office Building. The Sunflower protest now became a standoff between students and Ma’s administration.

Earlier, on March 23, the students had issued four demands, but none of them gained any traction. On March 28, Premier Jiang Yi-huah hinted at the possibility of legalizing a mechanism for the oversight of cross-strait agreements. Later, on April 3, the Executive Yuan approved a draft bill that would increase oversight, but the students rejected it. Three days later, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng declared that no cross-party caucus meeting on the CSSTA would be called until a new oversight law was enacted. The next day, April 7, the students announced their decision to end the occupation of the Legislative Yuan on April 10.

“The students win!” declared newspaper headlines.

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(Photo: Glenn Smith)

Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy

The international press by and large treated the Sunflower Student Movement as just another Taiwan protest, when it bothered to report on this act of civil disobedience at all. But the U.S. diplomatic community was following it closely, albeit quietly.

April 10 was also the 35th anniversary of the Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. treaty that has governed U.S.-Taiwan relations since the de-recognition of Taiwan in favor of China during the Carter presidency. To mark the occasion, celebratory papers were being issued and talks were being held in both the U.S. and Taiwan.

In a 70-minute video conference with Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, President Ma Ying-jeou, speaking from Taipei, told his U.S. audience of the “inexplicable fear” that China inspires among some social factions in Taiwan, clearly a reference to the Sunflower protests.Ma’s comment came in response to a question about his claim that his policies had bolstered the political “status quo” between Taiwan and China, and that cross-strait relations had never been better.

Ma had also expressed optimism that Taiwan would eventually be included in the trade group known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). “The sky is the limit, so let’s soar on the wings of this unique partnership,” the Taiwan president said.

To Ma and his audience in Washington, the CSSTA is a “local” free-trade agreement between Taiwan and China that will smooth the way for the “regional” TPP. Now, after the yearlong delay in the ratification of the CSSTA and the popular support shown to the Sunflower movement, the Taiwan president was sporting a black eye.

In his second inaugural address in 2012, Ma committed Taiwan to joining the TPP within eight years. Washington’s enthusiasm for this goal was made clear earlier this year in a Brookings Institution paper. Taiwan’s membership in the TPP, according to authors Richard Bush and Joshua Meltzer, will allow “TPP members to take advantage of the Taiwan-China Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) and use Taiwan as a platform for trading and investing with China.” Taiwan plays a key role in global supply chains, in particular the manufacturing of information technology gadgetry, so it is hard to imagine a regional free-trade agreement that excludes Taiwan.

Yet Washington has made no official pronouncements on the Sunflower Movement. That much is to be expected, as the United States has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan and is ever wary of angering China over comments about Taiwan. Instead, as is the norm, the U.S. view has been conveyed via a cadre of private citizens, all formerly employed in high positions at the American Institute in Taiwan, who met with President Ma before, during, and after the siege of the Legislative Yuan.

Considering the groundswell of popular support for the Sunflower movement, however, the TPP can expect a double dose of public scrutiny in Taiwan. None of the demands made by the student leaders targeted Ma’s policies toward China. Protest signage on Qingdao and Jinan roads declared that Sunflower was not unilaterally opposed to free-trade agreements. Instead the concern was the lack of transparency in the way the CSSTA was proceeding through the legislature, and a general frustration with the behind-closed-doors manner that democracy is conducted in Taiwan.

Some observers have viewed the Sunflower movement as a stalking horse for the opposition DPP for mobilizing political support in upcoming elections. True, the DPP and Taiwan Independence Movement (TIM) stalwarts did have a presence at curbside on Chungshan South Road along the Legislative Yuan’s western flank, but the TIM is focused on the wrongs of the past. The DPP, likewise, embraces de jure Taiwan independence but also is a liberal counterweight to KMT policies.

The Sunflower kids, in contrast, are firmly rooted in the present, with an eye toward the future. They signal the arrival of a new generation of political thinkers who no longer comfortably fit under the tired political labels of KMT or DPP, and foreign observers will need to incorporate them into their calculus of Taiwan politics.

Glenn Smith is a journalist who’s been based in Taipei for 30 years. He has contributed to more than 100 publications, including Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • michaelturton

    This is a really excellent piece.