Going for the Jugular! Americans Could Learn from Taiwan's Sunflower Movement

No pushovers here!

Student leaders Lin Fei-Fan and Chen Wei-Ting.

Extraordinary things are happening in Taiwan. The Sunflower Student Movement (some call it "Occupy Taiwan") has affected a major shift in the political landscape. As an American here in Taipei watching half from the sidelines, I'm deeply moved to see young people launch such a forceful and well-organized movement.

Photo by J. Michael Cole

I've taught young people here for nearly two decades now, and I know first-hand how smart the kids in this country are. The Sunflower students' bold challenge to Taiwan's Kuomintang-led government has shown impressive strategic know-how; their organization and rallying speeches have awoken millions here to the seriousness of the threat their democracy now faces.

First, a little background for those who haven't followed events or don't know much about Taiwan. I'll try to be concise, though doing so will mean simplifying what are quite complex issues.

Taiwan is a large island located in the South China Sea, not far from China. It's a country of 23 million people with a multiparty democratic government. China has long claimed Taiwan as part of its territory, and for decades, Taiwanese have been nervously studying China's every move, looking for signs Beijing may be preparing the long-threatened military attack.

But in recent years, the threat is not just a matter of missiles and battalions. As Taiwan's economy is increasingly integrated with China's, many here see Beijing carefully leveraging this assimilation to gain influence over Taiwan’s elites and media. Indeed, why would China resort to military force, if they could slowly annex Taiwan through economic means? They are one of the world's major economies, and thus wield enormous persuasive power over Taiwan's wealthy.

Photo by Lam Yik Fei

Enter Taiwan's current president Ma Ying-Jeou. Rising up through the Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) party that long ruled the country (a party with strong ideological ties to China and the idea of a "one China" including Taiwan), Ma was, for many Taiwanese, suspicious from the start, by virtue of his very party background. The fact that they elected him president was proof that, initially, most Taiwanese thought they could count on him to keep Beijing at bay, as other KMT leaders had done. Many of his party's elite, after all, had come from the generals who fought against Mao's communist armies before retreating to Taiwan. They are pro-China in a cultural sense, the Kuomintang was certainly not pro-communist China.

But then China isn't exactly communist any more, is it? It is only communist in name. So, when Ma began showing ever greater openness to Beijing, many in Taiwan were uneasy. They feel that their president was playing into the hands of a hostile government that intent on taking away their democracy. Ma, in short, was a different KMT leader: he didn't have the necessary wariness of China's "communist" leaders.

The Sunflower Student Movement arose in opposition to Ma's attempts to push through a new trade agreement with China (the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement). In March, KMT representatives in the legislature had, on Ma's orders, tried to ram through the trade agreement without the line-by-line review that had been planned. On March 17, KMT Legislative Committee Chairman, Chang Ching-chung, declared the treaty review completed, after only 30 seconds of debate; the move sparked public outrage. On the following night, student activists stormed and took over the legislative building in protest. Despite police attempts to expel them, they remained there until April 10, 2014, delivering speeches, speaking to the press across the world, assembling one the largest anti-government rallies in the country's history, inspiring support from Taiwanese around the globe, and, finally, forcing wide fissures to appear in Ma's own ruling party. When they left the legislative building, they left on their own terms.

In short, as far as student protest movements go, I'd say it's been a stunning success.

Photo by David Fong

So what do we have in this movement? Is this another fight against a free-trade agreement that will benefit the wealthy but harm the middle and working class? Yes, it is, for many here do not buy the Ma government's assertions that the Service Trade Agreement will be good for average Taiwanese.

But the fight is much more than that. It is also a citizens' movement in reaction to a clear national security threat. Many citizens are particularly horrified by this threat, because it is being brought to them (signed, sealed, delivered, though undebated) by their very own smiling and bizarrely indifferent president. Indeed, there are many reasons to see the Service Trade Agreement as a wide open door for further Chinese meddling in Taiwan. With half a century of claims on the island under its belt, China poses a very tangible threat to Taiwan's sovereignty; this agreement gives the nascent superpower yet more room to act. Furthermore, there are many reasons to suspect this particular president cares little about Taiwan's democracy and the country's national integrity.

That is, provided President Ma even considers Taiwan a country.

One of the popular slogans seen on posters and tee-shirts in recent weeks has been "Fuck the government, we'll save the country ourselves." It's a response to the widespread feeling, based on Ma's actions, that the government here is more interested in serving its cross-strait business elites than the Taiwanese population.

On April 6, 2014, the leader of the legislature, Wang Jyn-Ping, also of Ma's party but of a very different faction, visited the legislative building and greeted the students. He announced that he basically agreed with them and that he would not, once legislation resumed, do anything toward ratifying the treaty until the legislature had fulfilled one of the students' key demands: creation of a more democratic oversight mechanism for all future treaties signed with China.

Photo by Lam Yik Fei

The promise from Speaker Wang, a crucial figure in Taiwanese politics, has resulted in the students announcing yesterday that they would end their occupation of the building on April 10, 2014. Some of student activists disagree with this move, but I personally think it's the most strategically viable option at present.

Most people in Taiwan know very well that trade with China will continue; however, they also strongly believe that this trade must be based on treaties properly vetted by the Taiwanese people--not treaties handed to them by a paternalistic authoritarian executives with less than 10% public approval rating (as Ma had before this standoff began!).

As for Wang's promise to legislate new oversight and apply it to the Service Trade Agreement, should the students trust him? It does sound like a ruse, given that Wang is in Ma's party. Once the students end their occupation, what's to stop the legislature from going back to business as usual, and finding a way to ratify the treaty despite the clear wishes of the majority of Taiwanese, despite Wang's crystal clear assurance?

On the other hand, there are good reasons to assume the concession from Wang is an honest one. There's a lot of complex back-story here, which I won't go into. In any case, it looks like the three-week occupation of Taiwan's Legislation Yuan will end this week.

The students have said that their movement is far from over. After ending their occupation, they will shift from "defense to offense". They proudly assert that with their action, and the blood spilled because of violent government tactics, they have created a nationwide movement. Having attended the huge rally last Sunday, I will have to agree. Taiwanese are suddenly much less willing to be pushed around than they were, just a few months ago. They've been re-democratized by a small group of very savvy and dedicated students. It is, as I've said, inspiring to watch. I think my own country's activists could learn some things from studying the Sunflower Movement's success.

Courtesy of J. Michael ColeHere are some of the words spoken by Chen Wei-Ting, one of the main student leaders (quoted from the Taipei Times):

“The students and civic groups have halted the forced passage of the agreement and demonstrated that [President] Ma [Ying-jeou’s (馬英九)] administration’s has lost legitimacy; because, since 2008, it has been abusing power, making arbitrary decisions, breaching the rule of law, violating human rights, and causing democracy to be weakened," he said.

“The movement has revealed how the current cross-strait interaction has been dominated by the clandestine, under-the-table trading between the Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] and the Chinese Communist Party, a model that only helps the cross-strait political elite and capitalist corporations amass their fortunes and sacrifices the rights and benefits of most of the public.

“From this moment on, no behind closed doors negotiation is allowed; no regime can be permitted to make brazen moves to sell out Taiwan,” Chen said. “We Taiwanese, not anybody else, are the masters of this island.”

My previous posts on the Sunflower Movement discussed the soft news blackout on Taiwan in American TV and cable media and presented photographs from the protest in Taipei.

Eric Mader is an American expat who has lived and worked in Taiwan since 1996. He is a graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he received degrees in Comparative Literature and French, and has published two books since moving to Taipei. He blogs at https://claytestament.blogspot.tw/.

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