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.