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The Sunflower Movement and the Emergence of a “New Mass” in Taiwan

Wakabayashi Masahiro [Profile]


When students occupied Taiwan’s parliament building this spring, they won backing from a broad mass of citizens. What is the nature of this new mass, and what are the prospects for the new civic movement resisting President Ma Ying-jeou’s tilt toward China?

A Nonviolent Resistance Movement by Students

The Sunflower Movement that arose in Taiwan this spring caused a tempest on the political scene, but it wound down peacefully after a relatively short interval.

To sum up the course of events, on March 17, 2014, Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT, also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party) moved unilaterally to end deliberations in the Internal Administrative Committee of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s unicameral parliament, regarding the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China that was signed in June 2013 and bring it to a vote on the floor of the legislature. The following day, students protesting this move broke into the parliament building and occupied it. Four weeks later, on April 10, the protesters ended their occupation on the basis of a proposal by Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, who promised to hold off on inter-party deliberations on the CSSTA until after the passage of legislation to monitor all cross-strait (China-Taiwan) agreements.

While the students were occupying the Legislative Yuan, a group of them also forced their way into the Executive Yuan (cabinet) building, and some were injured while being removed by police. Overall, however, the movement stressed nonviolence and proceeded peacefully. And over the three-day period from their acceptance of Legislative Speaker Wang’s proposal to their exit from the parliament building, the protesters carefully cleaned up the roads around the building where they had been conducting sit-ins and teach-ins.

Despite the generally nonviolent nature of this student-led movement, it involved more than just marching through the streets or holding protest meetings; its activities—occupying the Legislative Yuan and the surrounding roads—extended to the use of force and violation of the law. But it came to a peaceful conclusion. This may well have come as a surprise to Japanese old enough to remember the violent dénouements of the activities staged by Japan’s New Left in the 1960s and 1970s, notably the occupation of Yasuda Hall by students at the University of Tokyo in 1969 and the Asama-Sansō incident of 1972.

What accounts for this difference? Japan’s New Left over time came to operate in line with the slogan “Seek solidarity but don’t fear isolation”; the leftist student movements showed little interest in appealing to society and building up a majority in support of their cause. Their use of force gave them a reputation as violent groups and led to their decline. This year’s student movement in Taiwan, by contrast, surprised most observers—and probably the participants as well—by quickly winning broad popular support for its occupation of the Legislative Yuan. Soon after the students broke into the parliament, the surrounding streets were filled by supporters staging a sit-in, and a support framework emerged in practically no time, helping maintain contact between those inside and outside the building and delivering the protesters’ messages to domestic and international audiences. In a few days it came to be called the “Sunflower (Student) Movement,” and on March 30 it attracted a huge group of supporters—110,000 according to the police and 500,000 according to the organizers—to a rally outside the Presidential Office Building.

The existence of this large number of visible supporters was probably an important factor behind the peaceful conclusion of the movement. Partly because of discord within the KMT between President Ma Ying-jeou and Legislative Speaker Wang, the authorities did not forcibly evict the protesters from the Legislative Yuan. The government ended up reluctantly accepting the settlement proposed by Wang, and the prospect of continuing the movement with broad public support probably encouraged the protesters to agree to leave the building. This mass support turned the Sunflower Movement into a typical example of civil disobedience.

Mass Support for Maintaining Democracy

How was this “mass” formed? It was first of all a mass of people wanting to defend democratic government. What incited the protesters to occupy the parliament in the first place was not their opposition to the contents of the CSSTA per se but their mistrust of the KMT administration, which, in its eagerness to strengthen cross-strait ties, had failed to provide a full accounting of the new agreement with China despite its great importance for Taiwan’s future, and their anger at the KMT’s move to bring the matter to a vote in contravention of the rules on legislative deliberations. It seems fair to say that many people shared a sense that the democratic system Taiwan adopted in the mid-1990s was somehow malfunctioning. It was the citizens motivated by this concern who took to the streets after March 18, providing the mass of supporters who surrounded the Legislative Yuan and protected the occupying students.

This mass did not take to the streets out of the blue in March this year. It was formed through a series of civil disobedience campaigns that took shape gradually following the KMT’s return to power with the inauguration of President Ma in 2008. Previously, the masses of people who rallied in the streets of Taiwan were recruited in support of one side or the other in presidential election campaigns and other struggles between the two main political camps, the KMT and the Democratic Progressive Party. In other words, the rallies took place within the framework of institutional politics. But after President Ma took office, people started taking to the streets, sometimes in tens of thousands, for various causes. For example, they turned out to protest against the widespread expropriation of land for industrial development and urban redevelopment projects, against hazing deaths of army recruits, and against nuclear power plants. Demonstrations against the new cross-strait trade pact had been going on ever since it was signed. In both human and organizational terms, the Sunflower Movement was the outgrowth of these earlier manifestations of street politics.

  • [2014.07.31]

Professor, Faculty of Political Science and Economics, Waseda University; director, Waseda University Taiwan Research Institute. Born in 1949. Received his Ph.D. in international relations and sociology from the University of Tokyo. Has taught in the foreign language department and graduate area studies department of the University of Tokyo and served as a visiting professor at the Institute of Taiwan History, National Chengchi University (Taiwan). His works include Taiwan no seiji: Chūka Minkoku Taiwanka no sengo shi (The Republic of China and the Politics of Taiwanization: The Changing Identity of Taiwan in Postwar East Asia).

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