One year ago, a momentous and unprecedented event occurred in Taiwan, something that would have either been impossible, or quickly and brutally repressed by the Government, only thirty years earlier. Given the paucity of Taiwanese news coverage in American and international media, it is likely that many people remain unaware of both the historic nature of this event and its wider, and still reverberating, influences upon both Taiwanese and regional politics.
On March 18th 2014, several hundred students and their supporters stormed Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan, and occupied it for three weeks in protest at Government attempts to use the institution as a rubber stamp for passing a service trade agreement with China. Its content was shrouded in secrecy, its impacts on Taiwan’s economy and security were unevaluated, and its benefits were being systematically overstated and in some cases entirely fabricated.
The 318 Student Movement (later known as the Sunflower Movement and which greatly inspired the later Umbrella protests in Hong Kong) captured the public’s attention, and eventually their sympathy. After a month of forcing a public debate about the agreements, negotiating an oversight mechanism with the Premier, and refusing to allow the protest to be manipulated or neutralised by either the President or the media, the protestors peacefully vacated the building to great public acclaim. They had sent a powerful message that Taiwanese democracy was not to be abused as a tool of a plutocratic class who they argued prioritised commercial and financial interactions with China at the expense of the country’s sovereign capacity to continue existing as a de facto independent state.
At the core of the protest was the widespread recognition that many, if not all, of the agreements the Ma Government had signed with China (extra-state via representative bodies) were primarily political in nature, rather than economic as was claimed − a means by which a CCP-KMT ‘United Front’ could set in place the economic foundations for the ‘regional integration’ or annexation of Taiwan prior to political talks. Following an abortive attempt to also occupy the Government offices (The Executive Yuan) that led to a bloody and harsh crackdown by police, on March 31 the students and various grassroots organizations rallied in front of Ketagalan Boulevard, where the Presidential Palace is located, and drew a crowd of hundreds of thousands. This demonstration of public support for the students acted as a catalyst for a narrative change in the media and a collapse in the Government’s already shaky popularity.
Seven months later, the ruling KMT was decisively and absolutely routed in local elections to a degree few anticipated. It lost control of all but one major municipal city as well as leadership in a number of counties it had hitherto assumed to be impenetrable bastions of support. One year later, the opposition DPP is now tipped to regain the Presidency and it might yet win a majority of seats in the Legislature. Less than two years ago that would have been unthinkable.
Since the Sunflower Movement, a number of new energetic political parties have been founded, the nation has carried out its first recall vote for a sitting legislator since 1994, President Ma resigned as Chairman of the KMT, the Premier was replaced, and China has come to publicly acknowledge the weakness of its image amongst Taiwanese ‘compatriots’ in an early return to predictable and formulaic warnings about the state of cross-strait relations should there be a change of ruling party in May next year. Taiwanese sentiment, politics, and Taiwan-China relations appear to have undergone a fundamental and perhaps even seismic shift. But, much of the world has failed to notice or understand the reasons.
For a lot of people outside of Taiwan, including many experts working on the Beltway, this protest, the first of its kind in the modern history of Taiwan, came as a complete surprise and a shock. For quite a few long-term Taiwan observers on the ground however, there was some surprise but little shock. The reasons for this disjunction are manifold, but largely centered on the success of the KMT, and the failure of the DPP, to establish and maintain a dominance of narrative about the status and identity of Taiwan, and what constitutes public ‘consensus’ about them amongst the Taiwanese. In short, a by-product of Taiwan democratisation and cycles of peaceful transfers of power via largely free and fair elections has been the breaking down of the KMT’s iron fisted hold upon the power, in Taiwan, to shape and determine how Taiwanese democracy, history, and identity is framed, discussed, and reproduced.
As a result, Taiwanese have come to question long-held assumptions about who they are, where they came from, and, critically, where they want to be in the future. From this introspection has emerged a widely shared Taiwan bottom line of core interests − fundamental values that most Taiwanese have come to demand must remain inviolate from external interference in internal Taiwanese affairs. These include multi-party democracy, freedom of speech and movement, a free media, economic and political sovereignty, and ultimately, the maintenance of Taiwan’s independence as a nation-state. Numerous longitudinal polls conducted by universities and think tanks all show the same trend − rising identification amongst citizens as ‘Taiwanese’ − a separate nation of people but whose language and culture have historical connections to China. This is similar to the identities of people in the U.S. and Canada − clearly separate countries whose respective peoples would regard the idea of ‘unification’ into a ‘Greater America’ as absurd, and above all, unnecessary.
Furthermore, alongside Taiwan’s democratisation, there has also been a rise in the frequency and scale of public protests staged against the Government, either organized by political parties or organized by ordinary citizens. Public protest has come to play an important role in the venting of concern, dissatisfaction, and anger, especially where and when the public feels formal channels of redress or accountability have been exhausted or closed. Whilst Chinese citizens are routinely arrested for challenging the CCP Government’s authority or legitimacy in any form, for the Taiwanese people, this ‘nuclear option’ is an essential component of their democratic rights and freedom to be heard, a right they have exercised regularly since the 1992 Wild Lily student protests that ushered in the start of democratic and constitutional reforms which inextricably tied the authority of the ROC’s political institutions to an electoral mandate conferred solely by Taiwanese.
It was this Taiwanese ‘tradition of protest’, combined with a nascent fear of how the KMT Ma Administration’s cooperation with Beijing was threatening the sovereignty of their country’s political economy, which generated the conditions that ultimately led to the students’ occupation of their national legislature. The students were exceptionally well organised and experienced, having mobilised support for, and participated in, public marches on a range of other issues including forced land seizure (Dapu), police brutality and repression of freedom of speech (Wild Strawberry Student Protest 2008), for media freedom (against Want Want Group’s attempt at media monopolisation), against nuclear power, and against brutality in the military following the hazing death of a young man doing his mandatory military service, to name just the most prominent events. Despite this, the student leaders have also come to recognise that their own management of the Sunflower Movement occupation of the legislature was at times undemocratic, demonstrating an ability to reflect upon the vagaries and paradoxes of handling decision making and the sudden power and prominence that comes when the Government and media realise a protest is not going to evaporate under a little pressure.
Without this historical and political context, it is no wonder that when they finally realised something significant was happening in Taiwan, analysts in the U.S. and abroad struggled to understand where it came from. They also struggled to comprehend the content of it, given that too many had perhaps unwittingly internalised Government narratives that depicted Taiwanese as a people who regarded themselves as Chinese, who identified with Chinese history, and who were allegedly holding out for unification with a newly democratised PRC. Such misconceptions have unfortunately continued to dominate many U.S. administrations’ perceptions of Taiwan, to the point where the U.S. has incurred Taiwanese anger by not so subtly expressing a preference for the KMT over the DPP in recent Presidential elections.
Whilst Taiwan is well into the messy job of executing its sovereign ‘digital democracy’, and whilst public opinion in Taiwan has shifted, establishment voices in the U.S. appear to have fallen increasingly out of step. Their shock at the Sunflower Movement and the political tsunami it appears to have generated, one that has seemingly put a halt to President Ma’s cross-strait ‘integrationist’ agenda, is only a reflection of the fact that too many ‘experts’ have been tone deaf to public opinion in Taiwan for too long.
The November 2014 election results seem to suggest a repudiation not only of the KMT’s China policies, and the opaque manner in which they have been implemented, but also a warning about how far Taiwanese are willing to quietly accept their position as a pawn caught between the crude power projections of Beijing and the opportunistic economic wish-fulfilment of Washington. They appear to have little faith that neo-liberal economic ideology has either theoretically or practically proven to produce policies which can adequately protect the general welfare of the people or the environment at the same time as allow for modest but steady growth. They are critical of their government for being a developmentalist State, captured by and serving the interests of a wealthy and influential minority, which at turns patronises, ignores, and is almost pathologically mendacious towards the very electorate that legitimises its authority.
Finally, ‘Regional integration’ in the form of an increasingly dependent economic and political relationship with China has neither delivered an economic boon, free trade agreements, nor the greater international space and visibility for Taiwan that it was promised would materialise. The longer the ECFA agreement and its subsidiary parts have failed to generate measurable benefits for the Taiwanese economy, the more Taiwanese have come to grow suspicious of broken promises and increasingly wary of the hidden agendas embedded within heavily contingent ‘peaceful cross-strait relations’. The Sunflower Movement emerged from that growing context of mistrust.
Whilst the Sunflower Movement participants felt they were aware of the dangers posed by too close an economic and political relationship with a country that has openly expressed its determination to annex Taiwan by force if necessary, it seems some in Washington have yet to learn a similar level of caution and care in their dealings with Beijing. The Sunflower Movement then was ostensibly about pulling Taiwan back from a fire the Government had told the people would only warm them. It was about giving the country breathing room to pause and properly evaluate the wisdom of getting too close to a China whose economy is slowing at the same time as its leadership has become more authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in the projection of its hard power across the South and East China Seas.
Likewise, the U.S. would be wise to update its understanding of public opinion in Taiwan, and comprehend why its cheerleading for ‘peace in our time’ across the Taiwan Strait sounds to many Taiwanese more like asking them to sue for peace with Beijing rather than help build a peace which recognises and protects the political and economic sovereignty they have come to regard as a basic and unimpeachable value – Taiwan’s bottom line. Unlike in China or the U.S., protest in Taiwan is not automatically regarded as synonymous with ‘chaos’ and an unacceptable challenge to the authority of the State, but rather as an indicator of the health and integrity of the democratic process. The Sunflower Movement, and the public support it garnered, demonstrated that Taiwanese will not be passive observers of a Government which continues to prioritize moneyed interests, is unwilling to respect democratic institutions, is unable to defend the nation’s independence, and is helpless to prevent a widening of wealth inequality. The message was clear: ‘radical, autocratic steps to change the status-quo and which undermine Taiwan’s security will be shut down, either on the streets or at the ballot box’.