Speaking at the Global Taiwan Institute on March 15, noted East Asia expert Richard Bush observed that the “demonstration effect” of Taiwan’s democracy can offer a critical counter-narrative to the cynical Beijing trope that the election of Donald Trump has fundamentally discredited democracy. While Bush was specifically addressing the situation of Hong Kong—a special administration region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)— its treatment under the “One-Country Two Systems” framework has always been salient for Taiwan. Thus, Bush’s assertion may be applied more broadly. As one of only a few mature democracies in the Asia-Pacific—and especially as the rare example of a peaceful transition from authoritarianism—Taiwan’s vibrant democratic culture has much to offer the region by example.
Indeed, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Russell famously suggested that Myanmar look to Taiwan in making its own democratic transition, implying that the US envisaged the island playing this role. As we reflect on Taiwan’s student-led Sunflower Movement three years after it burst dramatically onto the domestic political scene, and especially as we evaluate its lasting impact, it is important to note that movement leaders have consciously embraced this responsibility, viewing it as part of their mandate.
Through its program of regional outreach, the Sunflower Movement has both lived and exported Taiwanese democracy. Political parties and advocacy groups with roots in the student protests have sought to make connections with like-minded groups and individuals throughout Asia; this has taken the form of both official exchanges, as well as ad-hoc mobilization around specific issues. For example, in January, the New Power Party (時代力量, NPP) hosted members of Hong Kong’s Demosistō Party (香港眾志)—entities birthed by the Sunflower and Umbrella movements, respectively—in Taiwan as part of an official exchange program. In addition, the newly-established Network of Young, Democratic Asians (亞洲青年民主網絡, NOYDA), founded by Sunflower Movement leader Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆), has organized campaigns in response to perceived injustices in Vietnam and Thailand.
The extent and scope of these efforts demonstrate that the Sunflower Movement and its associated organizations are developing a highly-networked, activist infrastructure in Asia. Moreover, this outreach also shows that, contrary to popular portrayals and early evaluations, the Sunflower Movement and its offspring are not, fundamentally, ethnically or chauvinistically nationalist. That is, they should not be understood as deriving identity predominantly from opposition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a group or a people, although they undoubtedly were initially mobilized by Chinese aggression, but should instead be understood as deriving identity from shared democratic values.
While this looks “nationalist,” because it takes pride in Taiwanese identity and eschews PRC meddling, it is a decidedly non-traditional, inclusive nationalism, which looks outward and builds coalitions irrespective of national or ethnic identity. Scholar Justin P. Kwan terms this type of orientation “civic nationalism;” it is ascriptive rather than prescriptive, and is premised on the choice to align with others across borders, based on shared democratic commitments—it is both concrete and transcendent. This is important, in that it is precisely because the Sunflower Movement was based in a specific national democratic culture—Taiwan’s—but ascribes to a progressive, international identity that it can serve as a useful political model for the region.
The students who participated in the Sunflower Movement were activated, in part, by a growing disillusionment with Taiwan’s political culture, which appeared to them to have ossified. However, while the movement was anti-establishment and oppositional, it also stands in the tradition of Taiwanese democracy, and could not exist apart from it. For example, Ming-sho Ho (何明修), professor at National Taiwan University, situates the resurgence of activism that took place under Ma Ying-jeou, in the waning institutional confidence produced during the prior administration. He writes, “In the later years of the DPP government, many activists learned that they should look beyond the government as the only leverage for change and started to explore new avenues.” Because modern-day Taiwan began as a one-party state, the necessity of alternative institution-building and social organizing has long been evident to those outside the ruling party (the Kuomintang, or KMT), and the resurgence of activism that emerged in the late 2000s quickly established an effective infrastructure and mobilization techniques. In other words, Taiwan’s recent political history provided both precedent and methodology for launching a successful opposition movement.
If Bush, Russell, and other outside observers have emphasized Taiwan’s role in disseminating democracy, the Sunflower Movement has been adept at translating this exhortation into both domestic and international realities. Through their 24-day occupation of the Legislative Yuan (LY) and post-occupation institution building efforts—most evident in the founding of the NPP—the “Sunflowers” offer a critical example of democracy in action, one only possible in the Taiwanese context. Furthermore, through the establishment of organizations like the Network of Young, Democratic Asians (NOYDA), legislative exchange programs with new parties like Demosistō, and participation in regional progressive, democratic movements, the Sunflower Movement and its alumni have engaged in the outreach and networking required for a model to become a pedagogical tool.
In the end, the Sunflower Movement should not be viewed simply or only as an anti-China movement. To whit: in a December 2016 editorial in the Washington Post by several movement leaders, they wrote of the protests and occupation, “[drawing] inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street movement, this was a protest against the collusion of business and political elites who threatened to sacrifice Taiwan’s sovereignty to enrich the 1 percent,” thereby locating themselves within the global progressive movement, rather than along the traditional blue-green divide. The Sunflowers’ opposition to the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) was seen as part of a broader political agenda, one that also advocated for environmental protections, the rights of indigenous peoples, bolstering social welfare, constitutional and legal reform, and other issues. In other words, the Sunflower Movement was first of all a pro-democracy movement, seeking to preserve the political, economic and social space in which to push a progressive agenda.
For Taiwan and for the region, preserving space for robust democratic engagement will necessarily mean resisting the reach of Beijing’s long arm. Consequently, the long-term success of the Sunflower Movement and its regional outreach efforts will be largely measured by how well its networked groups throughout Asia are able to thwart the PRC’s authoritarian influence. As Kwan observes, “In the context of Hong Kong and Taiwan, the emergence of civic nation[alism] has occurred through the rejection of a Beijing-centered ethno-Chinese nationalism and the valuing of democracy and freedom under the norms of a largely democratic international system.” If the Sunflower movement has indeed been a catalyst for a youth-driven “civic nationalism” committed to democratic, progressive governance in Asia, this resistance will have been its most powerful legacy. That this should have emerged from an anti-establishment protest movement is an additional testament to the vibrancy, maturity, and resilience of Taiwanese democracy.
The main point: The Sunflower Movement was first of all a pro-democracy movement, seeking to preserve the political, economic and social space in which to push a progressive agenda. For Taiwan and for the region, preserving space for robust democratic engagement will necessarily mean resisting the reach of Beijing’s long arm. Consequently, the long-term success of the Sunflower Movement and its regional outreach efforts will be largely measured by how well its networked groups throughout Asia are able to thwart the PRC’s authoritarian influence.
 By “ethnically or chauvinistically nationalist” I refer to an attitude of popular, chauvinist superiority, rather than national pride and explicit repudiation of Chinese attempts to influence or control Taiwan. In making this distinction, I rely on Fang-yu Chen and Wei-ting Yan, in their article, “Who Supports the Sunflower Movement? An Examination of Nationalist Sentiments,” which appeared in the Journal of Asian and African Studies (2016): 1-20.