Vol. 2, Issue 20
The Significance of the Sunflower Movement: Global Taiwan Brief Curated Series
Curated by Melissa Newcomb
Sunflowers Scare Beijing More than Bombs
By: Melissa Newcomb
The Social Context of the Sunflower Movement
By: Fang-Yu Chen
Beacon of Democracy: Taiwan as Hope for Chinese Civil Society
By: Louisa Chiang
Taiwanese Civic Engagement: An Undermined Player in Cross-Strait Relations
By: June Lin
This week’s issue is the second of the Global Taiwan Brief’s curated series. The curated GTBs are special issues that focus on a central theme. The theme of this issue is on the Sunflower Movement, featuring the experts who spoke on the panel for the public seminar, “Reflections on the Sunflower Movement” which took place on March 29, 2017, the third year anniversary of the movement.
Sunflowers Scare Beijing More than Bombs
Melissa Newcomb is the research manager at the Global Taiwan Institute and the associate editor of the Global Taiwan Brief.
The most powerful weapon Taiwan can wield against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is its democracy. Usually when policy experts assess the existential threat of China vis-a-vis Taiwan, they discuss arms sales, deterrence, and security agreements. Rarely do we hear about how Taiwan is an existential threat for the PRC. However, the potency of Taiwan’s democratic system inherently calls the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) into question. After the election of President Tsai in January 2016, cross-Strait relations have eroded and many Asia-watchers surmised this was because of the DPP’s history as a “pro-independence party,” despite the fact that Tsai ran on a platform of maintaining the status-quo. However, I posit that the PRC has been so aggressive with Taiwan because Tsai was carried to the Presidential Palace by the momentum of the Sunflower Movement, a student movement that challenged political authority in the same way that students in early 20th century China opposed the imperial powers.
President Tsai harnessed the anger of young Taiwanese to win the presidency, but kept her rhetoric and her platform relatively moderate. Yet, the PRC’s actions toward Taiwan have been disproportionately aggressive—cutting off formal communication, picking off diplomatic allies, shutting Taiwan out of ICAO and now the WHA, deporting Taiwan’s citizens from third-party countries. These actions have all been carried out because President Tsai has not “accepted” the so-called “1992 Consensus.” However, President Tsai has publicly stated, many times, that she wants to keep the “status-quo” of cross-Strait relations. It seems that Beijing is reacting more towards anti-China sentiment among the populace than any official government policies.
Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement was not solely motivated by anti-China sentiment or the “China factor” as Fang-Yu Chen calls it in his article below. Nevertheless, it was the cross-Strait Services and Trade Agreement (CSSTA) that drove students in Taipei to storm and occupy the Legislative Yuan in 2014. The increasing influence of China over Taiwan’s domestic politics, media, and economy, was the catalyst that inspired the massive demonstration. As Louisa Chiang observes in her article, the Sunflower Movement can be viewed as one student movement in a long lineage of student-led activism in the history of Chinese revolutions.
The first is the May 4th Movement of 1919, when about 3,000 students gathered in Tiananmen Square to protest the Treaty of Versailles. Students were enraged that the treaty gave China nothing, and transferred Germany’s colonial holding, Shandong Province, to Japan. The movement spread throughout China as others joined through labor strikes and boycotts of Japanese goods. The May 4th movement ushered in a new political era, after which the Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) grew in strength and influence. The May 30th Movement, which took place in Shanghai, followed in 1925. It began as a series of labor strikes at Japanese-owned mills and on May 30th the British military opened fire on demonstrators, killing 13 people. Following the massacre, it was the university students who led protests against the killing and the unjust treatment of laborers. Students involved in pro-labor activism during that time were often members of the CCP who hoped to inspire a proletariat revolution.
Next were the student movements of the Chinese Civil War period (1945-1949), which ended with the CCP coming into power in 1949. The CCP’s account of history calls the student movement of the late 1940’s the “Second Front” (第二條戰線), revolutionaries who opposed corrupt domestic leaders (i.e. the KMT) and the foreign powers involved in China’s domestic politics. However, more nuanced historical sources describe the student movements of the time as anti-civil war and anti-US involvement in the conflict. Students wanted the KMT-led government to create a coalition that included the CCP. The KMT’s harsh retaliation against the students, however, led to a deep enmity. The present-day CCP has capitalized on this narrative—that the students rose up against tyranny and became the revolutionaries of the CCP that defeated Chiang Kai-shek and imperial powers.
There were, of course, a number of other movements and protests led by students throughout Chinese history, but the most significant in contemporary history is the 1989 Movement, often known for its bloody end— the Tiananmen Massacre. Entire books cannot capture every aspect of the protests that ended in tragedy on June 4, 1989, but despite its cataclysmic importance in the CCP’s history, it has effectively been erased from most people’s memory in China. The PRC government has done such a good job of eliminating the memory of the Tiananmen Massacre that most students presented with an image of the iconic Tank Man did not know what the photo was. The extreme measures the CCP takes to suppress any knowledge or memory of June 4th attests to how powerful student movements are in its history and its mythology. June 4th was the ultimate betrayal by a party that was carried to power by student revolutionaries calling for a more just China.
All this cursory history is to put the Sunflower Movement in the context of the PRC government’s perspective, to better understand why cross-Strait relations have deteriorated since Tsai’s election. There are many things that the CCP likes to believe about itself, and one of those things is the myth that the CCP is nothing like the imperial powers that came before it. Thus, the images of the Sunflower Movement, with students occupying the Legislative Yuan in protest of an unfair trade agreement with a powerful—and in the minds of many Taiwanese, foreign—country, powerfully question the legitimacy of the CCP. Months later, when the Umbrella Movement took off in Hong Kong, the CCP were confronted again with a student-led movement by people who were advocating for their rights against a foreign power. As China expert Jeffrey Wasserstrom said, “When there are enormous numbers of people on the street, that calls into question Beijing’s story. It makes Beijing look more and more like a colonial power.” Heirs to moral legitimacy, students and intellectuals hold a special place, like their Confucian scholar predecessors, in Chinese society. Mao Zedong recognized the threat and the power of students and intellectuals, whom he had harnessed during the Chinese Civil War, and who later became his targeted enemies during the Cultural Revolution. It is little wonder, then, that the PRC media has tried to take down student Taiwan’s activists by besmirching their reputations.
It is important to note that while the PRC government may see the Sunflower Movement in the context of Chinese history, Taiwan’s democratic movements have their own legacy which began during Japanese colonial rule and carried on after the KMT came to power in Taiwan. Early political movements calling for representation in the Japanese Diet or for local autonomy were influenced by Japanese political ideologies, and Chinese political influence was negligible before power was transferred to the KMT. The Sunflower Movement is both a part of and distinct from the student-led movements of China. This is what is most frightening to Beijing because it calls into question the CCP’s favorite mantra: the “One-China” principle, the 5,000 years of “continuous civilization,” that monolithic identity of Zhongguoren (中國人 ), which is applied to anyone born in its borders, or anyone of ethnic Han descent in the world.
It is all well and good to discuss missiles, submarines, fighter jets, security arrangements and the other weapons of war needed to protect Taiwan, but to really protect the rights and freedoms of people in Taiwan we must protect its democracy and acknowledge its importance. Though it is intangible, democracy is not soft and it is not secondary to the military. As Churchill quipped, “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”—and a real threat to authoritarians around the world, including the PRC.
The Main Point: Analysts of cross-Strait relations and Taiwan’s security often spend too much time focusing on hardware, forgetting the importance of civil society and democracy. To truly defend Taiwan’s democracy and de jure autonomy, better understanding of the power of social movement, especially in the context of the history in China and Taiwan, will avoid gaps in analysis and help policymakers navigate current cross-Strait tensions.
 Suzanne Pepper, Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-1949. (Oxford, UK: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 40-43.
 Lim, Louisa. The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. (UK: Oxford University Press, 2015), 6.
 Ibid, 86-87.
 Kim, Patricia. “Chinese Student Protests: Explaining the Student Movements of the 1980s and the Lack of Protests Since 1989.” Berkeley Undergraduate Journal21, no. 2 (2008): 2.
 Edward I-Te Chen, “Formosan Political Movements Under Japanese Colonial Rule 1914-1937.” The Journal of Asian Studies (pre-1986) 31, no. 3 (May 1972):. 497-8.
The Social Context of the Sunflower Movement
Fang-Yu Chen is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Michigan State University. He is also the co-editor of the website “Who Governs TW.”
The Sunflower Movement, an occupation of the Legislature for 24 days, was an unprecedented social movement in the modern history of Taiwan. It not only halted the service trade agreement signed between Taiwan and China but also fundamentally changed the political landscape of Taiwan. In the global context, the media listed it as one of the most “unforgettable symbols from an extraordinary year of protests.” The extraordinary event did not happen coincidentally but was a reflection of the growth of a vibrant civil society in Taiwan. It was not mobilized by the then-opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) nor by the people who are seeking Taiwan’s de jure independence. Lastly, the “China factor” (or the anti-China sentiment) was important, but it cannot represent the whole picture.
In short, since the KMT returned to power in 2008, social movements in Taiwan have been developing along two major lines: liberal/progressive issues and the reaction to the China factor. These social movements gradually converged due to the Ma Ying-jeou administration’s mishandling of these issues. On the one hand, the Sunflower Movement is part of a wave of citizen campaigns on social justice issues, in which young people were disillusioned by both the ruling and opposition parties. Prominent examples include the Guoguan Petro Chemical factory, as the activists successfully pressured the government to turn down construction of a petrochemical plant. Another example is the Dapu Eviction in Miaoli County. It led to mass protest against compulsory land acquisition for industrial zones in June 2010. In 2013, more than a hundred thousand people protested over the death of a conscripted soldier who was mistreated in the military, which became known as the “Citizen 1985” movements. These are showcases of civil society practicing deeper participation in public affairs, especially in ways motivated by progressive values. People were mobilized according to neither partisan identity nor politicians, but assembled by ordinary citizens through social media. These backgrounds partly explain why during the movement people were stressing the importance of “due process,” mobilizing “against the black-box,” and calling for government transparency.
On the other hand, the Sunflower Movement shows how Taiwanese civil society has resisted the China factor, increasingly perceiving it as a threat to Taiwan’s democracy. Civil society started to pay attention to China’s influence in Taiwan since the Wild Strawberry movement of November 2008, which was set off after police brutality against protesters when receiving China’s Emissary Chen Yunlin. In 2010, people protested against the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between Taiwan and China, although the scale of activities was mild. In 2012, a large rally was held against a media merger case, called the “Anti-monopoly Movement,” in which the China Times and TV networks were bought by the Want Want Group, one of the largest food manufacturing companies in Asia owned by a Taiwanese tycoon with extensive business ties to China. The main theme of the movement was to defend freedom of speech. Overseas activists held events in various cities and collected photos and uploaded them on social media. It ended up generating thousands of group photos worldwide (e.g., in Europe).
It is true that cross-Strait relations were greatly improved in the Ma administration, but various concerns arose in society. First, trading with China is still seen as “trading with the enemy” for many Taiwanese people, due to China’s military threats. According to the Taiwanese National Security Survey conducted by Professor Emerson Niou at Duke University, people worry about China using the economy to force a particular political concession. In 2008, only 20 percent of people said they were worried, which was an all time low. The percentage rose sharply and has remained at the 65-70 percent level since 2010.
Second, scholars have observed the emergence of cross-Strait government-business networks, which involve prominent political families, regular summits between the CCP and KMT, associations for Taishang (a term that refers to Taiwanese who conduct business in China), and electronics manufacturers. These actors are monopolizing business in various ways. In their daily lives, people are observing various side effects of cross-Strait relations, including rising real estate prices, crowded tourist spots, and complex politics-business linkages. Unfortunately, former President Ma, who recently toured the US, delivering speeches, continually rejected the idea that people were worried about the cross-Strait relations under his two terms. This is part of the reason why the KMT suffered landslide losses in the 2014 local elections and 2016 general elections.
In fact, it was not a debate of anti- versus pro- China. Rather, people were arguing about the pace and depth of interaction with China. Academic surveys show that Taiwanese people do not oppose having talks with China, and most of people have a positive opinion on broadening cross-Strait socio-economic exchanges. However, the Ma administration put every egg into the same China basket and did not see any problem with it. Many people know that China does not treat economic agreements as a means of trade liberalization but as a special tool for promoting political goals; nevertheless, the Ma government refused to do further reviews or analyses of the agreements as demanded by people.
In addition to the long-term structural factors that led to the Sunflower Movement, one short-term cause of the Movement was a political struggle between President Ma and the Legislative Speaker Wang Jing-pin. According to the law, Wang had the authority to order the police to clean up protesters in the legislature, but he did not do so. Had President Ma been smart enough to avoid a rough collision with Wang, there would have been no such event and no opportunities for checks and balances regarding concerns that cross-Strait relations were becoming “too-fast-too-deep.”
The Sunflower Movement shows an aggregate of various groups, and after the end of occupation it brought momentum, not only in terms of public awareness on social issues, but also generated a higher degree of participation in civil organizations. In particular, one witnesses a series of citizens’ deliberation activities on issues such as the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant, revision of the referendum act, the recall act, and constitutional reform. New media emerged as a reflection of the demand for greater political transparency, e.g., Watchout!, and for more for more discussion of public issues, e.g., New Bloom and Who Governs TW. Some left-wing third parties emerged, including the New Power Party, the Social Democratic Party, and a new pro-Taiwanese independence party. Some charismatic young leaders in the movement joined the parties and become political practitioners on various levels, while some participate in activities advocating for deeper reforms, e.g., the Economic Democratic Union. For the mainstream parties, they must at least respond to people’s demands on social justice issues, which were typically less salient in previous elections due to the prominent unification-independence debates.
The main point: The Sunflower Movement consists of several different driving forces, including the China factor, the social justice issues, the vibrant civil groups and active social movements, the dissatisfaction with the Ma administration, and the political struggle within KMT.
Beacon of Democracy: Taiwan as Hope for Chinese Civil Society
Louisa Chiang is an independent researcher on China’s political culture. She worked on China at the National Endowment for Democracy and the US Embassy in Beijing on trade issues as a Foreign Service Officer, as well as grassroots NGOs in Asia and the US. She is also a published Chinese writer, book scout, and translator.
This article will examine the multifaceted impact of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement on the People’s Republic of China (PRC). That impact can be broken down into two categories: influence on Chinese civil society and impact on the PRC government. Chinese civil society includes Chinese netizens, liberal opinion leaders, and activists in Hong Kong’s democracy movement. The depth and implications of the Sunflower Movement’s impact are clearest if examined from the long-term perspective of how Taiwan’s democracy influences China’s political development.
Chinese fans of Taiwan Democracy and Republic of China Heritage
In recent years, more citizens in China have been openly expressing their desire for the freedom and dignity of a democracy on the internet, a trend with profound implications for cross-Strait relations. These netizens see Taiwan as a beacon of Chinese democracy, and hope that a constitutional democracy similar to Taiwan’s will one day be adopted in the PRC. Han Han (韓寒), a liberal writer and media superstar, expressed admiration for Taiwan’s freedom, democracy and, traditional culture after his 2012 visit in “The Wind from the Pacific,” (“太平洋的風”), and ends the post by hinting that he wished China would adopt the same system.
These views are an integral part of Chinese civil society’s opposition to the PRC government’s rationalization of authoritarian rule. For example, the government openly asserts “Chinese exceptionalism” on the world stage, claiming that Chinese ethnicity and culture make its citizens intrinsically unfit for, and even hostile to, democracy. Many Chinese, including imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, have criticized their unelected government’s stance as racist and self-serving. Taiwan, whose complex cultural heritage is partly Chinese, is in their eyes the most powerful refutation of the myth of Chinese exceptionalism.
Among these liberal Chinese, “Republic of China (ROC) fans” (guofen, 國粉) and their influence are becoming particularly noteworthy. The Chinese government clearly sees the ROC fans as a political threat to its legitimacy, judging from state media attacks. The Global Times admitted in 2015 that guofens’ public opposition to official political narratives around ROC heritage has become “an ideological struggle…with political significance.” In addition to the coordinated, state-sponsored attacks on guofen in recent years, observers in China, Taiwan and the West also point to their impact as a political phenomenon.
Taiwan’s Democratic Demonstration Effect for China
Chinese analyst Zhang Boshu noted in 2012 the potency of Taiwan democracy’s demonstration effect for China. Part of that demonstration effect comes from the opportunity Taiwan affords many Chinese to observe and even participate in democracy. Due to the absence of language and cultural barriers, many Chinese netizens have become Taiwan political buffs, following talk shows and election campaigns. Some Chinese tourists timed their visits to Taiwan around the election cycle, until Beijing blocked such tours in 2014 and halted them altogether in 2016. More casual tourists, struck by the political openness, gracious civility and traditional culture untouched by the Cultural Revolution, have become ‘fans’ of Taiwan’s political system.
Opening direct cross-Strait exchanges have also shaped many Chinese students and nonprofit professionals, who directly experience Taiwan’s democracy. Chinese activists draw and amplify their inspiration from Taiwan. For example, President Tsai’s election helped mainland Chinese girls envision a future as a political leader, which “has a deep, long-lasting and incalculable effect on the women’s movement” in China, according to feminist and journalist Zhao Sile. Exile writer Yu Jie writes that exchanges lead to more democratic awareness among Chinese students and even, in some cases, concrete support for rights defense in China. In addition, more advocacy groups and individuals in Taiwan, becoming more globalist and less political in their outlook, are showing support for human rights and improved governance in China. The recent detention by Chinese authorities of Lee Ming-che (李明哲), a university lecturer who shared Taiwan’s democratic experiences with Chinese contacts online, furnishes the most visible example to date of this type of exchange. The Chinese government clearly finds such exchanges threatening, fearing an erosion of its legitimacy.
Chinese civil society’s admiration for Taiwan’s democracy has also on occasion turned into political identification. A rights advocacy group called the Pan-blue League (泛藍聯盟), based largely on the internet and consisting of young Chinese, has called for ‘reunification’ under the ROC banner. Five of its leaders sought asylum in Taiwan in 2015 but were later repatriated. A 2010 Taiwan government publication took note of the League’s ability to survive draconian political controls in the PRC.
The Sunflower Movement: Enlightens Chinese Civil Society and Frightens Chinese State
The Sunflower Movement, a milestone in Taiwan’s grassroots movements, magnifies the demonstration effect for Chinese civil society by challenging assumptions derived from decades of authoritarian rule. For example, through the suppression of even the least political form of assembly and association, the Chinese government sows fear among the middle class that social movements can only produce mob rule and societal collapse during political transition. Civil society leaders in China, haunted by Communist Party history, likewise believed that mass movements are almost invariably turned into a tool of the political elite, ending in anarchy. Many of these leaders initially opposed the Sunflower Movement, fearing that it would irreparably harm Taiwan’s democratic institutions. The outcome surprised these Chinese in meaningful ways. They saw that both civil society and elected government can act with restraint and resolve conflict with dialogue.
The Sunflower Movement and its Hong Kong counterpart, the Umbrella Movement, have converged in ways that are significant for democracy in the region. Having transitioned from British colonial rule to PRC jurisdiction, Hong Kong’s vibrant political culture is curtailed by long-standing institutional and structural limits under a liberal oligarchy. The people of Hong Kong do not have the luxury of Taiwan’s expanding political space for broad-based protests and grassroots organizing. The concrete organization around large-scale civil disobedience in preparation for Occupy Central, provided by Taiwan activists before the Umbrella Movement, was one of the many tactical and inspirational channels through which Taiwan democracy touches Hong Kong, which is itself a cornerstone of liberal political influence on mainland China. In the same way, traditionally inward-looking Taiwan democrats are paying more attention to the erosion of civil and political liberties in Hong Kong. The common threat from Beijing has led to greater solidarity and sharing of strategies and perspectives between the two movements.
The impact of these social-political trends upon Chinese civil society produces the opposite effect on Beijing. The threat that the Sunflower Movement poses to the CCP regime goes beyond mere interference with unification goals. The smear campaign that the Chinese propaganda machine produced against the movement indicates the extent of this perceived threat. Beijing’s hostility is rooted in its own history. The success of the Party’s grassroots organizing and reliance on China’s student movement during its rise to power prove the contagious power of social movements. For the same reason, the Party deeply fears that spreading awareness of the Sunflower Movement in China would trigger the memory of the Tiananmen massacre and its suppression of the largest spontaneous social movement in China since 1949. Chinese netizens often obliquely reference this fear by prophetically quoting Chairman Mao: “All those who crack down on student movements will come to a bad end“（凡是鎮壓學生運動的人都沒有好下場)
Civil Society as a Game-changer
In conclusion, pro-Taiwan sentiments among more liberal Chinese may eventually become a game-changer for cross-Strait relations. For example, their views turn the usual debates about the effect of the Sunflower Movement on cross-Strait relations on their head. Many Chinese have been concerned about a cross-Strait political and business alliance undermining Taiwan’s democracy. These Chinese fully support the Sunflower Movement’s wariness of PRC encroachment. They see the Sunflower Movement as pro-China, since it protects democracy in Taiwan, which must remain vibrant and autonomous if it is to provide a true demonstration effect for the PRC. Conversely, more Chinese liberals have come to blame the Chinese government’s military threat for feeding Taiwan’s independence movement. While nationalist sentiments that support the Chinese hardliner stance toward Taiwan independence appear to be the mainstream opinion, and have grown more vocal and bitter since the Sunflower Movement and the election of Tsai, at least part of this phenomenon is likely attributable to PRC government setting of news agenda. Sudden changes such as an economic crisis may weaken the government’s hold on public opinion.
A Chinese democrat and participant in the New Citizens Movement (中國新公民運動), Zhang Xiangzhong (張向忠), reportedly sought asylum in Taiwan. He told the press that “we can’t let China unify Taiwan, it should be the other way around. We should let all the people in China enjoy the […] democracy and freedom both Taiwan and Hong Kong have.” There is reason to believe, judging from the Chinese response, that Taiwan’s democracy does indeed pose a challenge to Chinese authoritarianism. In the long haul, Taiwan’s demonstration effect is likely to play an important role in China’s political transition. The international community should take note that a secure and democratic Taiwan, by its pull on China, promises greater peace and stability in the region and the world.
Main Point: People in China are supporting democracy in Taiwan as part of their political liberalization. The demonstration effect of Taiwan’s democracy and its refutation of Beijing’s claims of Chinese exceptionalism both contribute to that liberalization, which the Chinese government considers a threat to its legitimacy. Over the long term, Chinese civil society’s support for Taiwan is likely to change the dynamics of cross-Strait relations. The world should take note of the significant benefits of Taiwan democracy for peace and stability in the region.
Taiwanese Civic Engagement: An Undermined Player in Cross-Strait Relations
June Lin is a policy associate at the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) and an activist in Taiwan where she participated in the Sunflower Movement.
In 2014, the Sunflower Movement broke out in Taiwan and took the world by surprise. Led by young students, activists and NGOs, the occupation of the Legislative Yuan (LY) grew into a well-organized, widely-supported occupation that lasted for 21 days, and forever changed the fate of Taiwan.
The Sunflower Movement is an important moment in the broader discourse of the democratic movement in Taiwan. It was a total rejection of Nationalist (KMT) governance at that time, and resulted in a shift in the domestic political landscape later in both local and general elections. The election of 2016 was the first time in the history of Taiwan that the KMT lost both the presidency and its historic legislative majority to the pan-green camp.
Nevertheless, the occupation of the LY was more than an act of angry domestic political dissidents. The movement and its subsequent effects hobbled the KMT’s China-leaning economic and political policies. Later, the Sunflower Movement became an unmistakable sign of civil society’s political and social engagement trend, re-shaping the future of Taiwan. It is evidence of how Taiwan’s robust democracy and active civic society can shape both its domestic and foreign policies, mold the development of cross-Strait relations, and have an impact on East Asia more broadly.
The Social Context of the Sunflower Movement
In 2010, the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) contained a series of policies intended to go into effect under the Ma Administration that changed how the “China Factor” affects Taiwan’s security. No longer does the People’s Republic of China (PRC) pose only an external military threat, in the form of missiles aimed at Taiwan; now, China also poses a threat to Taiwan’s domestic autonomy. One way this threat is manifested is through local political and business elites in Taiwan. According to research done by Taiwanese scholar Wu Jieh-min, such a coalition of political and business elites have been gradually forming across the Taiwan Strait over the years.
By delivering preferential policies through elites acting as local agents in Taiwan, Beijing has created an influential source of leverage, with which it can interfere in the internal affairs of Taiwan. The coalition and its members, mainly high-level PRC and pro-KMT politicians and business leaders, have become interest groups, embedded in the governmental institutions of Taiwan, turning the state-to-state negotiations into party-to-party or individual-to-individual channels. The policies and agreements between Taiwan and China promulgated during the Ma administration were dominated by only a few powerful people, and therefore could easily evade the supervision of opposition parties and civil society groups. During the Ma administration, the broad sense of geopolitics perceived close economic ties with China as an indication of the progress and stabilization of cross-Strait relations. However, to most Taiwanese people, the accelerated dependence on China, despite its continuing suppression of Taiwan’s sovereignty, represented a dangerous path that might lead Taiwan right into the the snare of Beijing’s intention to annex Taiwan.
These concerns—shared by several groups and individuals in Taiwan towards Ma’s cross-Strait policies—resulted in many social movements after 2009, such as the Anti-Media Monopoly (反媒體壟斷運動) in 2013, a student-led protest against China interfering with Taiwan’s freedom of the press through the China Times Group, a media corporation purchased by Want Want Holdings with extensive business interests in the PRC. The Anti-Media Monopoly movement brought the China Factor into the public’s awareness. The procedural breakdown during the legislative process of the CSSTA was the flashpoint of the people’s resistance to the internalization of China’s interests within Taiwanese society: the examination and signing process of the CSSTA was held by high officials of the KMT and little information was disclosed to the people. The KMT legislator chairing the CSSTA review began and ended the process within 30 seconds, and not a single clause was examined. The internalization of the China Factor and its effect on the democratic system of Taiwan ultimately led to the Sunflower Movement as well as a total re-examination of Taiwan’s internal and external political affairs.
The Ripples from the Sunflower Movement
To the young activists who participated in the Sunflower Movement, the end of the occupation provided a new starting point for practicing democratic ideas. After the movement, young activists in Taiwan established various civil society groups with different advocacy goals. Many activists ascended into governmental institutions and political parties to implement political reforms. Some of them even decided to run for legislator or city councilor positions.
Besides the vibrant political and social activism of young generations, an important legacy of the movement was the emergence of a so called “Natural Independence”(天然獨) identity. “Natural Independence” is not the radicalization of the younger generation, nor is it an identity built on an “anti-China” ideology. It is, however, a norm of Taiwan’s de facto independence and autonomy recognized by young people born after the 1990s, who have moved away from the old-fashioned nationalism of the KMT that seeks to represent the one legitimate China. These young people are proud of their Taiwanese identity, which is built on their love for the land along with their drive for enhancing the robust democratic and liberal values of Taiwanese society, and fighting for a future based on self-determination.
This Taiwanese identity already proved to be an unstoppable trend a year after the Sunflower Movement, when a large group of even younger activists took the streets in 2015, protesting against the government’s changing of the high school history curriculum to one with a more “One-China” focus. The activists demanded a more transparent curriculum evaluation process, expressing their eagerness to learn about their country from Taiwan’s point of view, rather than through “One-China” rhetoric. These recent social movements and elections, along with an emerging and distinct Taiwanese identity, demonstrate a new consensus: Taiwan does not claim to represent China, nor is it trying to become a part of China. Rather, the Taiwanese seek to normalize Taiwan with greater international recognition, dignity, and space for Taiwan’s participation in international organizations.
Taiwanese Civic Engagement
After the call that took place between President Trump and President Tsai, the US recognition of Taiwan’s president was characterized by some as a “diplomatic crisis” and “a move that is sure to anger China,” ultimately “risk[ing] stability, U.S. ties in East Asia.” As a Taiwanese-American, I felt ambivalent about this strong reaction by the international media and US liberals, because Taiwan’s democracy seemed to be easily cast aside and forgotten when facing an aggressive China. The general reactions expressed in the United States and elsewhere also demonstrated how the civic engagement of Taiwan in recent years has been undermined. Taiwan’s dynamic in cross-Strait relations and in the trilateral relations between China, Taiwan, and the US is, in part, influenced by the will of Taiwanese people. Foreign policy and cross-Strait relations are not only led by President Tsai’s inauguration speech, or her answer to the PRC’s “1992 Consensus” test question; as a democratic country, the stance of the elected government more or less translates the will of the people.
Neglecting to understand the development of Taiwanese civil society will lead to miscalculations and surprises for policy analysts and officials. Take the Obama Administration for example. President Obama met with Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2009 and continued encouraging ECFA and the dialogues that motivated the then-KMT government to pursue policies detrimental to Taiwan’s democracy and sovereignty in order to accelerate integration with China. That tendency eventually triggered the Sunflower Movement in 2014.
Taiwanese civil society has also been undermined and discounted by the PRC side, evidenced more recently by the “disappearance” of Taiwanese human rights worker and advocate Lee Ming-che (李明哲). After taking Lee into custody without disclosing any reason, the PRC informed Lee’s wife to “remain low profile and cooperative.” Rather than sitting idly by, Lee’s wife, Lee Ching-yu (李凈瑜), a researcher studying Taiwan’s own history of martial law and authoritarianism, has turned to civil society, dozens of NGOs in Taiwan, and official and transparent channels to address this situation. Lee Ching-yu’s actions may best reflect the contemporary Taiwanese democratic spirit: though Taiwan is facing escalating pressure from various external sources, we will stand by the principles and values that steers the island towards democracy, and seek to resolve conflict through democratic and transparent means.
The mixed messages that President Trump has sent after his meeting with Chinese President Xi indicate that Taiwan might become a bargaining chip between the great powers. However, there are risks when dealing with an authoritarian power, with a state apparatus run by a single-party system, which has no oversight to prevent reneging on agreements reached. This risk, combined with recent issues regarding US leadership, demonstrates the invaluable importance of maintaining democracy-monitoring mechanisms and ensuring civil engagement in watching out for the public interest. This helps to prevent a small number of politicians from manipulating the people and their desire for well-being. With the recent trend of rising right-wing conservatism around the world, it is crucial, now more than ever, for civil society to build international solidarity in order to defend liberal and democratic values. As such, it is time for the United States and others to reconsider relations with Taiwan—a democratic country with a strong and progressive civil society for its backbone.
The Main Point: Taiwan’s dynamic in cross-Strait relations and the trilateral relations between China, Taiwan, and the US, is in part influenced by the will of Taiwanese people. The Sunflower Movement of Taiwan is evidence of how Taiwan’s active civic society could mold the development of cross-Strait relations, and have an impact on East Asia more broadly. Neglecting to understand such development of Taiwanese civil society will lead to miscalculations and surprises for policy analysts and officials.