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.