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.