The Sunflower Movement in Taiwan

Mark Harrison is a Taiwan specialist, Senior Lecturer in Chinese at the University of Tasmania in Hobart and Development Director of the UTAS Asia Institute. His publications include Legitimacy, Meaning and Knowledge in the Making of Taiwanese Identity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) and The Margins of Becoming: Culture and Identity in Taiwan (Wiesbaden: Harrassovitz, 2007). He wrote on ‘Civility Across the Straits’ in our China Story Yearbook 2013. Mark is a member of the Management Group of the Australian Centre on China in the World.—The Editors


From Tuesday 18 March to Thursday 10 April 2014, hundreds of university students and other activists occupied the chamber of the parliament of Taiwan, called the Legislative Yuan Lifayuan 立法院.

The day before the occupation began, the legislature’s Internal Affairs Committee had been due to begin three days of long-delayed debate on the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA Haixia liangan fuwumaoyi xiehui 海峽兩岸服務貿易協議). However, Chang Ching-chung 張慶忠, CSSTA chair and a member of Taiwan’s governing party the KMT, ruled to suspend the committee’s review of the agreement and send it to a vote for ratification in the KMT-majority legislature.

The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) objected strongly on the floor of the chamber. On Tuesday 18 March, hundreds of student activists gathered outside the Legislative Yuan building to protest what they believed was a breach of democratic process, demanding a line-by-line legislative review of the trade agreement.
Around 9 pm that day, with no resolution in sight inside, the student protesters climbed the fences of the building, overwhelmed the police guards, and entered the legislative chamber. In the early morning of the 19th, police made an effort to remove them, but with barricades of chairs and other furniture stacked against the doors, the police were repelled and the occupation began.

Lin Fei-fan, left, and Chen Wei-ting, student leaders, pose for photographs inside Taiwan’s legislative chamber in Taipei, Taiwan, on Monday, March 31, 2014. Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

Lin Fei-fan, left, and Chen Wei-ting, student leaders, pose for photographs inside Taiwan’s legislative chamber in Taipei, Taiwan, on Monday, March 31, 2014.
Photographer: Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

The Cross-straits Services Trade Agreement had already been negotiated and signed in mid-2013 by the two organisations that represent Taiwan and mainland China in cross-straits relations, the Straits Exchange Foundation (Haixia jiaoliu jijinhui 海峽交流基金會) and the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (Haixia lianganguanxi xiehui 海峡两岸关系协会). The CSSTA extended an earlier trade agreement already in place since 2010, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA, Liang’an jingji hezuo jiagou xieyi 兩岸經濟合作架構協議), which removed trade restrictions between Taiwan and mainland China on a wide range of products and commodities. The CSSTA would go on to cover services, including retail, education, banking and finance, telecommunications and cultural industries.

The negotiations were conducted behind closed doors, in what the student activists describe as the ‘black box’ (heixiang 黑箱) of Taiwanese government dealings with mainland China. After the agreement was signed, domestic political pressure led to it being sent to the Legislative Yuan for review and ratification. The review was brokered by the KMT speaker of the Legislative Yuan Wang Jin-pyng 王金平, a political rival to President Ma Ying-jeou 馬英九. (In 2013, investigators in the office of the President had accused Wang of interfering in a legal case against an opposition DPP legislator and the KMT had unsuccessfully attempted to expel him from the party.)

The 17 March Internal Affairs Committee decision would have skipped the agreed review and moved straight to legislative approval.

Following the initial move on the chamber, the student activists began mobilising for a sustained occupation. Numerous supporters arrived through the day of the 19th, gathering in the streets around the Legislative Yuan, organising to provide those inside with supplies of food, water and equipment, and offering medical care and legal advice. The police cut electricity to the chamber but the students and their supporters set up fans and lengths of air-conditioning ducting to supply fresh air from the outside.
A large media contingent also arrived, with journalists and broadcast vans from all the major media providers in Taiwan setting up in the streets and providing live and constant coverage.

People were able to move in and out of the chamber through a second-floor window. These included opposition legislators, who had shown support for the students, as well as the representatives of a range of civic groups. On 20 March, Wang Dan 王丹 and Wu’er Kaixi 吾尔开希 ئۆركەش دۆلەت, two of the leaders of the 1989 student occupation of Tiananmen Square and who are both living in Taiwan, entered the legislative chamber in a show of support. The campaigners also immediately deployed the full array of contemporary social media, live-blogging and updating their status on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and many other services, generating a vast amount of text and images on the occupation and the issues.

In the subsequent days, the government issued statements both official and unofficial, both conciliatory and disparaging of the students and their concerns. The government made two key points: first, the students were undemocratic because they had disrupted the proper process of the legislature conducted by elected representatives; second, the CSSTA was established in the interests of all Taiwanese people and it had sought to open new markets in China to maintain Taiwan’s prosperity.

On Saturday 22 March, the Premier, Jiang Yi-huah 江宜樺 met with student leaders in the street, surrounded by a large crowd of protesters. The meeting turned out to be a fractious and argumentative encounter that served only to deepen divisions. Jiang deflected the protesters’ questions and demands and they became increasingly frustrated. On Sunday, in his first public response to the crisis, the President of the Republic of China, Ma Ying-jeou held a press conference in which he called for the end of the occupation and reiterated that the CSSTA was necessary for economic growth.

This vague and dismissive response from the government led to rising anger among the protesters through that first weekend. On Sunday night, after the President’s press conference, a breakaway group of activists went into the nearby Executive Yuan 行政院 building which houses the offices of the cabinet. This time, on orders from the government, the protesters were forcibly and violently removed by riot police with shields and batons. Water canon trucks were also deployed. Dozens of people were injured and hospitalised.

The scenes of bloodied protesters, injured police officers and water cannon trucks from the police action in the Executive Yuan both galvanized the resolve of the protesters inside the legislature and drew the attention of a shocked and concerned public to the campaign issues and the campaigners themselves.

The two most prominent leaders of the student occupation were Lin Fei-fan 林飛帆 and Chen Wei-ting 陳為廷. Lin and Chen, along with a number of other students, have been politically active for several years, organising a university students’ rights group in 2010 and attracting global media notice with their successful student-led campaign in 2012 against the concentration of media ownership in Taiwan, the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement fanmeiti longduan yundong 反媒體壟斷運動. Since then, they have been involved in student activism across a wide range of political and social issues, focusing their attention on providing support to local communities in a series of urban development controversies.

Over this period, through these different movements, the student-led activist groups formed by Lin, Chen and others have built an ‘infrastructure of protest’ to support both traditional and new forms of political action. They are able to mobilise the logistics of direct action to support marches and sit-ins and also deploy a multitude of social media platforms to disseminate ideas, facilitate debates and publicise their causes.

These student activists do not have formal organisational structures. Rather, they use new media and practices that follow the styles of contemporary viral marketing to develop and sustain their different campaigns, with distinctive names, eye-catching graphics, hashtags, Facebook pages and other websites.

The students first campaigned against the implementation of the CSSTA late in 2013 under the name Black Island Youth Heise daoguo qingnian zhenxian 黑色島國青年陣線, using a design language around the colour black and issuing a set of demands for greater government transparency.

In the first week of the occupation of the legislature, a supporter brought bunches of sunflowers to the Legislative Yuan building to symbolise the need to let sunlight into the black box of KMT negotiations between Taiwan and mainland China. The colour yellow and the sunflower were promptly incorporated into the design of the protest movement, which became known as the Sunflower Student Movement Taiyanghua xueyun 太陽花學運 and inaugurated with a new Facebook page. Rather than use the Chinese name for the sunflower xiangrikui 向日葵, the activists coined the term taiyanghua 太陽花 (a literal translation of the English word ‘sunflower’).

A KMT legislator, Chui Yi 邱毅, known for his controversial statements in the media, went on a talk show and lambasted the students for bringing what he mistook for bananas into the legislative chamber, so generating another stream of Internet ‘memes’ that were then shared and commented on, and so on. With the continual transcoding of events and statements by participants into digital images and texts, uploaded and circulated at viral speed through a multitude of Internet platforms to generate ever-larger cycles of ‘shares’ and comments, the protest movement gained visibility and cogency.

These practices of activism by Lin, Chen and many others are a response to a political malaise in Taiwan. In recent years, divisive and reactive party politics in Taiwan have come together with in an aggressively competitive local media environment. Political controversies have fuelled a sensation-seeking media and vice versa, creating a public sphere that many Taiwanese describe as disconnected from their social reality. As a result, and in an experience not unique to Taiwan, the engaged reading public has become disaffected from the political process and disillusioned with party politics.

The student activists are using global social media platforms to create an alternative public sphere, separate from commercial media and party politics, and legitimised in new ways as a voice of the Taiwanese people, with hits, likes, and shares, both within Taiwan and internationally, instead of with tv ratings and opinion polling.


photo by 蔡嘉瑋

In this alternative commons, these students have emphasised the importance of rationality and the aspiration to carry politics forward through informed deliberation and strength of argument, rather than the cycles of controversy and reaction that have bedeviled party politics played out in the commercial media. In guidelines laid down in previous protest marches and sit-ins, the students have insisted on non-violence, respectful behaviour and what might seem like trivia, such as collecting litter and preparing for changeable weather, but which is actually an expression of a civic consciousness that is central to their politics.

In this regard, the protesters’ confrontation with the Premier on 22 March and the violence of the first weekend was a step back from these rational principles. But at the same time, for many Taiwanese it conjured up memories of Taiwan in the martial law era from 1949 to 1987, when earlier generations of activists fought against the authoritarian rule of the KMT under Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo.

In this way, the violence connected the Sunflower Movement with the history of the decades of struggle for democracy in Taiwan. Told by political leaders, historians, writers and artists, the story of democratisation has become a national narrative, one that describes the Taiwanese as a people whose identity has been forged in struggle against authoritarianism. The violence of the first weekend of the occupation sanctified the students’ campaign as a new chapter in Taiwan’s story as a democracy.

The occupation of the legislature continued and Lin and Chen declared their intention to hold a public rally for Sunday, 30 March.

In the week leading up to the rally, the government remained seemingly at a loss. The Premier reiterated through the media that he was open to discussion, while other ministers professed support for the CSSTA and repeated the official line that the document and its ratification was necessary for Taiwan’s continued economic prosperity.

On Tuesday 25 March, the President’s office issued an invitation for talks between President Ma and the student leaders, but Lin Fei-fan responded with scepticism, questioning whether a meeting with the President was really a meaningful way of discussing the ramifications of the CSSTA. Student leaders then claimed that Ma was using his role as chairman of the KMT to pressure KMT legislators to ensure that any legislative review would ratify the agreement anyway. They proposed that discussion between themselves and the government should focus on institutional oversight mechanisms for cross-straits agreements. Numerous political and public figures weighed in, on one side or the other of this continuing conflict. The speaker of the Legislative Yuan, Wang Jin-pyng, began cross-party talks on a legislative compromise.

Anticipation for the 30 March public rally built during the week. Another protest identity ‘Democracy at 4am’, written in English, emerged, using an online crowd-funding website to raise funds to place a front page ad in the international edition of the New York Times in support of the occupation.

On the afternoon of Sunday the 30th, the public protest rally took place. People came from all over Taiwan to participate, with speeches from the student leadership, music and food in a peaceful but committed atmosphere. Police estimated the crowd at 120,000, while the students put the figure at closer to 500,000. The wide roads around the Presidential building in central Taipei were jammed with people for blocks in all directions.

The success of the rally served to legitimise the protest action. Both the government and the students were using the ideals of democracy to justify their positions, each accusing the other of being anti-democratic. However, with such huge numbers of the public marching in support of the students, the government could not claim the students were extremist radicals disrupting the process of government.

Divisions thus began to appear in the ranks of government and the Office of the President was increasingly isolated. The chair of the Internal Affairs Committee, Chang Ching-chung, and the KMT chief whip, Lin Hung-chih 林鴻池, apologised for the original committee ruling that sparked the crisis.

The occupation of the legislature then took a turn towards the absurd.

On Tuesday 1 April, the leader of the pro-unification China Unionist Party Zhonghua tongyi cujindang 中華統一促進黨, Chang An-lo 張安樂, brought his lieutenants and a crowd of supporters to the Legislative Yuan. He declared that their aim was to evict the students. Chang, also known as the White Wolf, is allegedly the head of the United Bamboo triad criminal organisation, and a keen cultivator of media attention. He spent more than ten years in China evading criminal charges. On his return to Taiwan in 2013, he was arrested then released and soon embarked on a political career. Amid shouts of abuse and threats of violence from Chang’s supporters, the legislature was barred by a squad of riot police, standing between Chang and a group of student activists and members of the DPP behind them outside the building.

In their behaviour at the legislature, Chang and his supporters came across as a dangerous fringe group. The image of the police went from negative to positive: earlier they had been portrayed as instruments of KMT authoritarianism; now the police were being presented as guardians of democracy and protectors of Taiwan’s youth from criminal violence.

The government’s position had crumbled and on Sunday 6 April, as the occupation entered its third week, KMT Speaker of the Legislature Wang Jin-pyng visited the students to negotiate a settlement. A proposal was agreed to enact legislation that would enable oversight over all cross-straits agreements, and that review and ratification of the CSSTA would be suspended until the new legislation had passed. The students deliberated at great length and while they were not unanimous, they agreed nonetheless to end the occupation of the Legislative Yuan on Thursday 10 April.

The domestic political fallout of the occupation of the Legislative Yuan will continue for weeks and months. The movement exposed divisions within the governing KMT and the weakness of the Executive. The Minister of Justice, Luo Ying-shay 羅瑩雪, issued a statement saying that the student occupiers had committed a range of criminal offences and could be subject to prosecution.

The CSSTA is a highly technical and legalistic document and, as with all free trade agreements, its long-term economic implications are uncertain. The DPP, several of the student activists and a range of other commentators have all stated that the agreement could lead to unification by default. With the acquiescence of the Ma government, they claim, investments in the finance sector, education services, cultural industries and retail would give mainland Chinese businesses, which are intertwined with the PRC state and the Chinese Communist Party, a direct level of control over key segments of the Taiwanese economy and also a more insidious influence over the cultural and social life of Taiwan, promoting Chinese identity and the goal of the unification of Taiwan with China.

The Ma government does not fully address these concerns but instead emphasises the economic benefits to the Taiwanese people of the agreement and the opportunities that would open up for Taiwanese investment in mainland China.

The strength of the political response to the trade agreement from activists and the Taiwanese public suggest that both positions are expressing deep fissures in Taiwanese society. In the simplistic arguments of both proponents and detractors of the CSSTA is a shared anxiety (and scepticism) over the viability of a distinctive Taiwanese polity and identity. For the KMT, in a position that is little changed from the martial law era, the Taiwanese will ultimately accept Chinese investment and act in their narrow financial interests rather than over political or cultural ideals. For the opponents of the CSSTA, in a fear that also echoes the martial law period, Taiwanese identity will dissolve in a media, cultural and educational environment gradually dominated by the Chinese identity politics that will come with mainland investment.

Early on in the occupation of the Legislative Yuan, a group of medical volunteers entered the chamber to support the student protesters. They addressed the question of Taiwan’s identity in a powerful way. The group carried with them portraits of four people: Lai He 賴和, Tu Tsungming 杜聰明, Chiang Wei-shui 蔣渭水, and Lee Chen-yuan 李鎮源. Lai (1894-1943) was a doctor who became a writer of short stories and poetry in the Japanese period. His work dealt with the Taiwanese rural experience as it was transformed by Japanese colonial modernisation. Tu (1893-1986) was a political activist in the 1910s, the first PhD holder from Taiwan (in medical science), awarded by Kyoto Imperial University in 1922, who founded the Kaohsiung Medical College in 1954. Jiang (1891-1931) graduated in medicine from Taiwan Medical College in 1915 and was one of the founders of the Taiwan Cultural Association in 1921 and the Taiwan People’s Party in 1927. Lee (1915-2001) was a student of Tu Tsungming and became a noted pharmacologist after studying in the US. An activist in his seventies and eighties, he was the first chairman of the Taiwan Independence Party in 1996.

Each of these four was a medical professional who saw himself as having a broader responsibility to address the challenges that Taiwan would face in developing its own cultural and political identity. Each found ways through literature and politics to advocate for the unique circumstances of the people of Taiwan as the island passed through Japanese colonial rule, martial law under the KMT and the transition to democracy.

When the young physicians stood holding photographs of these remarkable figures in March 2014, they presented themselves as bearers of their aspirations, both professionally and politically. They were also reminding their public that Taiwan itself has a unique and meaningful historical legacy that should be honoured.

Within the international community there is a view that the KMT government of President Ma has dealt effectively with the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China in the interests of Taiwan. During Ma’s tenure, there has been a lowering of political and military tension and a doubling of cross-straits trade. But the legacy of those men and women who built Taiwan into a modern democratic island over more than a century has been rendered invisible in this assessment of present-day cross-straits exchange. The student activists in the Legislative Yuan were campaigning to assert Taiwan’s island story and their place in it. For long-term peace across the straits, both the KMT and the Chinese government will need to find a way to recognise the legitimacy of that aspiration.