By Lee Yi-tze, Photo by REUTERS/Toby Chang
No one could have expected that the events of March 18th could be so powerful, and so alarming to Taiwan’s governing Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administraton. The student congress occupation movement, later known as Sunflower Movement (太陽花學運), first saw students and then ordinary citizens of Taiwan to protest against the secrecy surrounding the “Cross-Strait Services and Trade Agreement” (CSSTA) the Ma administration negotiated with China.
The name of the movement was a reference to the 1990 Wild Lily Movement (野百合學運). Also in March, students of the Wild Lily generation occupied the square in front of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial, now renamed Liberty Square, and demanded the re-election of Taiwan’s legislature due to its lack of local representation.
Twenty-four years later, Taiwan’s legislature, the Legislative Yuan (立法院) is now locally elected. However, the current ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT), retains both the presidency and a legislative majority due in part to its wealth and strong party machinery. A problem with this situation is that the president, Mr. Ma Ying-Jeou, is an apparent believer of the One China model. This is in tension with the fact that public opinion shows a clear long-term trend in the opposite direction.
Under Mr. Ma’s direction, KMT legislators and Taiwan’s cabinet, the Executive Yuan, tried to ratify the highly controversial CSSTA as a package, without an article-by-article review. A crisis precipitated when the KMT legislator chairing the CSSTA review committee abused his authority, and announced that the trade agreement passed review simply because it had been sent to the Legislature for three months.
There was neither a full review of the pact, nor a committee vote on concluding the review process. As a result, students and civil activists stormed into the Legislative Yuan and started their occupancy of the chamber. The movement has been ongoing for the last for eighteen days.
Other than the dozens of students inside the Legislative Yuan, thousands of students and ordinary citizens are voluntarily sitting by the roads around the legislature in an attempt to prevent a clearing of the Legislative Yuan. They are trying to fortify what they consider to be the last chance to show the people’s will to the Ma administration.
Two major events which happened since the occupancy.
1) On the night of March 23rd, after continued refusals by the Ma administration to open the pact for review, several hundred protestors advanced to the Executive Yuan (行政院) building a few hundred meters away from the Legislative Yuan.
They managed to move into and occupy the Executive Yuan. A standoff with the police ensued. In the early morning of March 24th, the police moved against the crowd of sitting protestors in the Executive Yuan, and started to hit them with batons and shields. Just before dawn, the protestors were expelled by water canon. Dozens of people were hurt, several seriously. There was no resistance from the protesters throughout the police action.
Public opinion condemned the government for being disproportionately brutal, and turned even more sympathetic to the students and protesters. The police action on March 24th resulted in the calling for a mass protest on the following Sunday, March 30th.
2) That weekend afternoon, up to 500,000 people filled the space between Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial, Presidential Office, and the Legislative Yuan in the capital, Taipei City.
The courage driving the students, activists, and protesters is admirable. They seem unfazed by threats from the Ma administration, beatings by the police, and sometimes even patronizing disagreement from their parents.
The movement’s request is simple: First create laws to monitor the CSSTA, and then review the agreement article-by-article. Their request is so straightforward that makes it difficult for legislators to manipulate.
At its core, the movement stands for a firm point: a belief in the need for a truly democratic process to oversee cross-strait negotiations. The Sunflower Movement grew from social conditions totally different from the earlier Wild Lily Movement which took place decades ago.
Three points stand out in particular.
Focus on government transparency
First, current concerns about democracy focus on government transparency, especially in cross-Strait negotiations and public engagement in political processes rather than demands for representative legitimacy, which Taiwan already enjoys.
The attention and debate due to the occupancy have made citizens much better informed and educated about the problematic contents in the trade pact. In some respects, this is representative of the progress in civic engagement and public education in the years since the lifting of martial law in 1987.
By highlighting issues surrounding public decisions and engagement, the Sunflower Movement is helping citizens become more aware about how free trade and other governmental agreements affect their future.
Civic education courses initiated by many university faculty members, themselves members of the Wild Lily generation, near the Legislative Yuan provided a combination of knowledge and action. The movement released pent-up public desire for real information analysis, not just spin from politicians. From this perspective, part of the Sunflower Movement is a street democracy that informs the public about the pros and cons of the issues at the stake.
Social Media in place of Mainstream Media
Secondly, the power and reach of contemporary communications made information about the Sunflower Movement highly accessible to ordinary citizens. On the first night of the occupancy of the Legislative Yuan, major media outlets were reluctant or unable to carry the story, and displayed few images of the event. Using their mobile devices and social media applications, student leaders were able to broadcast live from the Legislative Yuan. With Facebook, Twitter, Line, and live broadcasting devices, social media simply replaced the traditional mass media.
The public was consequently able to quickly access information about developments on the ground. By being able to compare reports, the public was able to see for itself differences between mainstream mass media accounts and the feeds that they received directly from inside the Legislative Yuan. This enabled members of the public to become their own decision-makers when it came to managing information, not editors in the control rooms of TV stations.
Existing social unjust in the country
A third and probably most important aspect of the movement was greater public self-awareness coupled with common recognition of the problems facing a majority of Taiwan’s citizens.
There were a number of socially unjust developments leading up to the Sunflower Movement that frustrated and even enraged many citizens. They included an illegal demolition of private property for the interests of a construction company, a land grab and illegal tearing down of a farmer’s house in the name of gentrification, the death of a national service person from mistreatment and abuse in the military.
Most recognizable to youth in Taiwan, however, was a fall in the average income for new graduates from NTD 30,000 (SGD 1,250) to NTD 22,000 (SGD 920).
Taiwan’s youth saw a desperate situation. They were unclear and worried about the downside risks of a cross-Strait agreement concluded in a procedural “black box”. In an unprecedented development, aboriginal youths joined the Sunflower Movement despite a longstanding tendency of not participating in such activities. Aboriginal youths stood up in order to address fears about the loss of traditional lands and cultural autonomy once the CSSTA comes into effect. More and more people are voicing their concerns regarding the CSSTA. Amid all this ferment, the Ma administration appears to still be searching for its earplugs!
Taiwanese citizens are lucky to witness an exciting, but highly rational, goal-oriented student movement that is interactive, broadly-engaged, self-disciplined, and, most of all, peaceful.
The Sunflower Movement is not for the personal gain of the students and activists, nor is it for the benefit of the economic interests associated with the CSSTA. It is not a question about whether to liberalize the economy or not.
The Sunflower Movement is for Taiwan’s next generation. It calls the attention of each and every citizen to the decisions we have to make collectively for our future, whatever her or his position may be.
With the Sunflowers, we are united in Taiwan.
Lee Yi-tze is an assistant professor in the National Dong Hwa University's Graduate Institute of Ethnic Relations and Culture＆Department of Indigenous Cultures.