During the February revolution in Ukraine, a Youtube video featuring Yulia Marushevska, a young Ukrainian making an impassioned plea for help, had gone viral, reaching eight million views and attracting international attention. Not only did she end up on CNN, she also became a rallying call on social media websites including Facebook, Twitter and reddit. Organizers both in Ukraine and Taiwan were aware that international support was not only necessary, but also essential, in the public relations battle against the government.
At the school campus, the social media team were looking for a similar story. Ting-ru, the Facebook administrator, had taken a microphone onto the podium to ask for students to volunteer as speakers and filmmakers. They would film messages in Cantonese, Chinese, English and Japanese. Videos would be shared on the official Facebook page. Instead of “I am a Ukrainian,” students would start with “I’m a Taiwanese,” and end with a plea for viewers to share the links with their friends.
Over the course of the movement, dozens of such videos would be shot and distributed on Youtube; some of behalf of the organizers, most others being messages of support from around the world. “Don’t let Taiwan become the next Hong Kong,” said students from Hong Kong swaying to the tune of John Lennon’s Imagine. While none of the videos would come anywhere close to the success of the Ukrainian clip, Youtube, unfiltered and not subject to commentary from the media, was about to become a defining medium in how the revolution was to be shared.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
One of the other mediums, of course, was exposure through the foreign media. Ma, Harvard educated and fluent in English, was sensitive to international opinion, the students reasoned. As a result, the hearts and minds of people worldwide would be essential if they were to force the government to agree to their demands, which included at this point the passage of a monitoring mechanism for cross-strait agreements, and rejection of the services agreement by the Legislature for further review.
Nick Tan was one of the organizers in the Legislature, attempting unsuccessfully to get his internet to work. One of the older members of the group, he was about to field a live interview session with the BBC on Skype in 15 minutes. A veteran of student protests in the past, including the Wild Strawberry movement in 2008, this was his first Skype interview. Searching desperately for an open connection, he was frustrated. Extremely frustrated. “Forget it. It’s not going to work.”
Nick and Oliver, the liaison for the foreign press, were two organizers who understood the need for a close relationship with the foreign media. Fielding upwards of 30 e-mails and an equal number of calls per day, they struggled, mostly unsuccessfully, to make their movement relevant in a sea of reports surrounding the missing Malaysian airliner MH370. But they didn’t struggle alone. Scores of bloggers had also set up shop, sharing real-time video, photos and updates from the assembly hall’s second floor balcony.
A few in particular stood out. A hacker collective (loosely termed) called g0v had established a publicly accessible “hackfolder” to consolidate information flowing out of the chamber. It provided easily accessible links to 17 streaming video feeds from both the two floors inside, as well as their surrounding streets. Meanwhile, three text feeds, included one in English, were also updated every minute by bloggers fuelled by caffeine and ramen.
Tucked away in one corner of the balcony, past a security checkpoint manned by volunteers armed with iPads, was Sean Su, the blogger from New York. Sean, a web engineer by trade, had arrived in the chamber during the confusion that followed shortly after the initial occupation. Equipped with two iPads, he rapidly set up a video feed on UStream (tagline: You’re on!), a San Francisco-based company with more than 80 million viewers and broadcasters. It was essential, he said, that viewers gain unfiltered access to what was happening in the Legislature.
Back on the school campus, students were watching the rapidly unfolding events at the Executive Yuan. At 7:35 pm on the evening of Sunday March 23, two hundred students led by organizers Chen Ting-hao and Wei Yang had managed to break past the barbed wire barricades at the main entrance and enter the building compound. A small number climbed up ladders and managed to break into the building itself, quickly piling up furniture to block the police response that was sure to come.
They were soon joined by more than three thousand supporters from the neighboring Legislature, who streamed over Zhongxiao East Road to expand their sit-in at the complex. Spirits were high. But so were tensions. Initially caught off guard, police rapidly regrouped to the north of the complex on Beiping East Road. Thousands of riot police were called in and officials promised a swift response.
What followed was a series of puzzling encounters. First, one of the administrators on the Facebook account, one that each organizer assumed that others knew, posted a widely shared message suggesting that supporters should relocate from the Legislature to the cabinet office. This was later deleted. But to add to the confusion, another message was sent out just before 10 pm, this time via text, asking hundreds of students “on non-official business” to return to their campus base of operations.
The text was troubling. Not only did it lead to the withdrawal of about half the key organizers at a critical juncture, it was also sent directly into personal, unlisted numbers – many of which were not given out during the course of the protest. Students at the campus base were confused to see the sudden arrival of dozens of breathless colleagues who were essential to the organization of supplies and personnel at the Executive Yuan.
Meanwhile, some of the Facebook and Line messaging groups used by the organizers suddenly ballooned from about 25 to 40 users, many with profile names that organizers failed to recognize. Some of their profile pictures appeared to be students (wearing a no-nuke T-shirt, for example, reminiscent of an earlier protest many student organizers had participated in), but a closer look revealed the accounts either to have been recently created, or devoid of any further personal information.
Amid confusion at the operations level, the first wave of riot police moved in at half past midnight. Thousands of them in full riot gear – wielding batons and shields – methodologically cleared out Beiping East Road. Most of the protestors, staging a sit-in, were pulled out. Others who resisted were expelled more violently, leading to media images of bruised and bloodied students emerging from behind police lines.
Aided by water cannon trucks, this continued until 7 am. Following Beiping East Road, the Executive Yuan building, and the surrounding complex were also cleared out before police moved to Zhongshan and Zhongxiao East Road, where hundreds remained defiant through the night and the early morning. Prior to each eviction, the members of the media were to first be escorted out, some forcefully, to prevent pictures and videos of the process to permeate the live news cycle.
At daybreak, Taiwan woke up.
The country woke to scenes of protestors, mostly students, clutching bloodied faces as they blinked, dazed and confused, into living rooms and offices. What was initially envisioned by both students and the public to be a climax for the movement instead became a catalyst. As far away as the U.S., Canada and the U.K., supporters, mostly overseas Taiwanese students and immigrants, rallied in public squares in defense of the students. Even Senator Sherrod Brown (D) and Representative Ed Royce (R) would release statements in their support.
Many of these scenes – videos and images uploaded on Youtube, Facebook and other discussion forums – would end up being taken down faster than they could be put up. And with 41 protestors charged due to the Executive Yuan protest, student groups organized on PTT, the online bulletin board, began to rapidly assemble and compile these files so that they could be used as potential evidence further on.
In the meantime, a full-page advertisement in the New York Times was quickly put together by 4 am, by a group of civic activists with loose ties with the student organizers. It was a powerful message, featuring students with their heads bowed being hosed by a water cannon. “Taiwan,” it noted, “needs your attention and support.” The placement costs of $208,000 (inclusive of the New York Times ad at $153,000 and another at the Taiwan-based Apple Daily) were raised in less than four hours on FlyingV, Taiwan’s equivalent to Kickstarter.
Preparations also began for a larger rally – one that the students hoped would capitalize on discontent with both the services agreement and the police crackdown. Predominately spread through Facebook, almost half a million would end up attending on the afternoon of Sunday May 30, more than five times the number that the organizers had envisioned. The occupation had evidently hit a raw nerve for the public, and it no longer seemed possible that the students would quietly fade into the background.
Back in the legislative chambers, it was nearing 3 am on April 2, three days after the rally. Oliver was tired. With less than 20 hours of sporadic sleep over the past week, interrupted frequently by foreign journalists calling at all hours, he sat groggy eyed staring at the questions on reddit coming in from around the world. Some were essays (“In a proper democracy this is where the judicial branch gets involved right?”), others were one sentence statements of support (“No questions but I wish I could upvote this post a thousand times.”)
Oliver took a look at the room around him. Dozens of students slept in sleeping bags on the floor. The bloggers were still up, giving live commentary on the balcony. Lin Fei-fan, clad in his trademark olive green jacket sat hunched over his computer, planning, no doubt, the events that would come tomorrow. He went back to the statement about the Taco Bell from the user in Florida.
Oliver looked at his response. “Ask most of us here a couple of months ago, and we would have probably said the same.” Clearing his eyes for a second, he paused again, then he slowly added, “But one day you realize that if you aren’t willing to stand up for your country now, there might never be another chance.”
“That’s a pretty sobering thought.”
Author’s note: The students peacefully ended the occupation on April 10, after cleaning up and fixing much of what was broken inside and outside the chamber. Organizers Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting said that they had achieved their aims after Legislative Speaker Wang Jyn-ping announced on April 7 that he would ensure that a monitoring mechanism be passed prior to a further review of the service agreement. Some of the names of the students in this article have been changed to protect their identity.
Vincent Y. Chao is a former reporter at the Taipei Times. He is a writer based in Taipei, Taiwan.