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


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.

The Rise of Taiwanese Identity

Another aspect of the mass that emerged in support of the Sunflower Movement is the rise since 2008 in the number of people identifying themselves as “Taiwanese.” The graph below shows the results of surveys conducted since 1992 by the Election Study Center at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University in which respondents have been asked to identify themselves as either “Taiwanese,” “Chinese,” or “both Taiwanese and Chinese.”

To judge from the results of this survey, as of 2007, when DPP leader Chen Shui-bian (who was seen as strongly in favor of independence from China) was president, the number of people identifying themselves as Taiwanese was less than the number identifying themselves as both Taiwanese and Chinese, but the results flipped in 2008, and the Taiwanese share continued to rise under President Ma’s KMT administration. As of December 2013, it was almost 60% of the total. And though I will not go into the details here, while the movement was underway there were various episodes indicating that the students and other young people participating in it identified themselves as being Taiwanese—and nothing else—as a matter of course. I believe that most of those who sympathized with the Sunflower Movement were among the mass of people espousing Taiwanese identity.

The members of the movement made many critical references to cross-strait political and business networks and to the cross-strait power elite. In their view, the business ties between Taiwan and China and the various forms of interaction between Taiwan’s ruling KMT and the Communist Party of China, both of which have expanded further under Ma Ying-jeou, are promoting the growth of a mesh of political and economic interests that are moving to take control of Taiwan’s future. They see this trend as oppressing the class of people who cannot easily share the benefits of increased cross-strait ties, and they believe that it is eroding Taiwan’s democracy.

This sort of rhetoric, which also contains an element of criticism of the neoliberal order, brings together the identity politics of the new Taiwanese mass with a new politics of class. Here we see another feature of the mass behind the Sunflower Movement.

The Difficult Road Ahead

The new mass that emerged on the political scene in Taiwan in conjunction with the Sunflower Movement confronts an old mass, consisting of those who reelected Ma Ying-jeou to a second term as president in 2012 and put the KMT in control of the legislature. This is the mass that is lending legitimacy to Taiwan’s institutional politics. The Sunflower Movement pressed the old mass to yield to a certain degree, and it called for accountability from the current administration that this mass supports. But until the next round of presidential and parliamentary elections in 2016, the new mass will have no opportunity within the existing political system to directly challenge the president and legislators for what it sees as their failure to assume proper accountability for their actions.

Civic groups that were involved in the Sunflower Movement have now launched a New Constitution Movement seeking to address the lack of accountability under the existing political system. And they have established a citizens’ organization (“Taiwan Citizen Union”) to back candidates in the 2016 legislative elections. But this movement is likely to face difficult going. The lack of accountability is not the only problem with Taiwan’s democracy. China will surely not let up in its efforts to penetrate Taiwan through the cross-strait political and business networks, and the KMT will surely cling to the existing arrangements making it easy for it to win a parliamentary majority. And it is not yet clear what direction will be taken by the DPP, the force within the framework of institutional politics that is expected to serve as a counterweight to the KMT and to pressure from China.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether forces like the Taiwan Citizen Union will succeed in quickly establishing a position for themselves within institutional politics through the upcoming legislative election and other such contests. People who are familiar with the history of democracy in Taiwan remember the role that the student-led Wild Lily Movement played in promoting democratization back in the spring of 1990. But the situation that today’s new mass confronts in 2014 is far more challenging.

(Originally published in Japanese on July 10, 2014. Title photo: Student leaders hold a press conference within the grounds of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan on March 27, 2014. Photo by Jiji Press.)

China politics Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou Kuomintang movement KMT Sunflower