Was Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement Successful?
Image Credit: J. Michael Cole for The Diplomat

Was Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement Successful?


The Sunflower Movement’s unprecedented occupation of Taiwan’s legislature in March and April this year made the headlines for a month, a feat almost unheard of in the island’s all-too-impatient media. It was the subject of heated debate on TV talk shows. It even became the object of attention overseas after supporters launched their own small protests. For a while, it looked like the occupation would change the face of politics, perhaps even dislodge President Ma Ying-jeou from his all-powerful position as chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Then the occupation ended, the headlines turned their sights toward new developments, and it looked like things had returned to their original state, the movement fated to little more than a mere footnote in the nation’s political history. Or was it?

I recently had the pleasure of speaking at a conference on Taiwan’s social movements at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The main argument of my talk was that small but persistent guerrilla-type protest groups had been more successful than larger movements with mass appeal, such as Citizen 1985. Over the next two days, my use of the term successful often came back to haunt me. Academics, being what they are, wanted — and rightly so — a proper definition.

A narrow characterization of success in that context would be whether the government was forced, as a result of social mobilization, to slow down, modify, or abandon certain policies. A wider definition would be whether activism had managed to keep an issue alive and to turn it into a subject of debate — in other words, education as a component of success. Other aspects of success which refined themselves in my mind as I tried to provide an articulate response to my academic counterparts included the sustainability of activism over the long term, its unpredictability, and the amount of attention that activists received from the authorities, including law enforcement.

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Having offered this platter of definitions, I remained convinced that my main argument that small groups such as the Black Island Nation Youth Alliance had been for the most part successful, whereas Citizen 1985, having mostly faded into oblivion, was overall a failure. Although both groups had not managed to force the government to change its policies (on the cross-strait services trade agreement with China and abuse in the military, respectively), Black Island and the dozens of other organizations that eventually coalesced into the Sunflower Movement had nevertheless succeeded in turning the CSSTA and the failing government mechanisms that alimented the controversy into a national (in fact international) issue.

Let’s explore this in further detail, first by turning to what the Sunflowers didn’t achieve. For now, it looks like the Ma administration intends to pass the CSSTA in its original format, and there are doubts as to whether Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng’s intervention to defuse the crisis, which came with a promise to implement a proper review mechanism, will be honored by the government. Also in question is whether the split within the KMT that was ostensibly forming during the occupation is durable; for a brief period of time, it looked like Ma would be forced to step down as party chairman, which would have ensured his near-complete neutralization for the remainder of his second (and last) term in office. Ma eventually dodged that bullet and remains ensconced as party chair, and is thus still able to exert great influence on both the legislative and executive branches of government. A mutiny in the KMT would have constituted a major success for the Sunflowers. That did not materialize, but who knows what the long-term implications of that momentary cleft will be.

Let us now turn to the successes. There is no doubt that the Sunflower Movement has reanimated civil society in Taiwan, which had grown dangerously pessimistic and disorganized over the years. The genie appears to be out of the bottle for good, and activism will likely be a fact of life in Taiwanese politics for years to come. Furthermore, under the Sunflower umbrella groups that had fought each other finally learned to cooperate by transcending their differences and fighting for a common cause. Often unsaid is the fact that the Sunflower Movement constituted far more than students; as many as 54 civic organizations and NGOs took part in the occupation, which points to the heterogeneous nature of the opposition to the CSSTA. Besides bringing civil society together, the Sunflowers also gave renewed hope to people who had given up on Taiwan. The previous month I was in Houston to give a talk at the Asia Society, which was attended by a large contingent of Taiwanese Americans. Time and again after my speech, they told me how inspired they were thanks to the Sunflowers. The change could not have been more obvious, and now they all wanted to know what they could do and how they could be useful to Taiwan’s mobilized youth.

Another sign of success was the fact that the Sunflower Movement and social groups in general became the focus of several academic conferences all over the world. Even at conferences that were not about social movements, the subject of the Sunflowers inevitably crept into the conversation, as happened during a closed-door conference at Nottingham University a few days after the one at SOAS. For skeptics or supporters, the Sunflower Movement was a hot topic, and it was recognized that its impact would very likely outlive its presence on the front pages of Taiwan’s newspapers.

It also became clear in the weeks following the occupation that the Sunflower Movement’s impact had extended beyond Taiwan and served as an inspiration for other protest groups. Activists in Hong Kong and Macau used symbols and rhetoric similar to the Sunflowers; it’s unlikely that this was an accident. In fact, since then, there have been growing exchanges between Taiwanese activists and those involved in Occupy Central, which has compelled Hong Kong authorities, ostensibly pressured by Beijing, to deny entry to some Taiwanese activists, including Chen Wei-ting. There is good reason to believe that the successes of the Sunflower Movement have reinvigorated likeminded organizations in the two special administrative regions, if not in China proper.

Consequently, another success of the Sunflower Movement is its ability to inject itself into politics across the Taiwan Strait, thus forcing Beijing to take social forces into consideration as it adjusts its policies. Above all, the Sunflower Movement was able to communicate, almost viscerally, the widespread opposition within Taiwan to Beijing’s stillborn “one country, two systems” formula, opposition that, while it existed in the past, had never truly succeeded in finding its voice. The message was loud and clear, and Beijing heard it. (What it does with this information is an entirely different question, and in many ways its reaction to Occupy Central in Hong Kong will be an indicator of its future approach to the even more formidable Taiwan challenge.)

One last, albeit more subtle, success for the Sunflowers was the movement’s ability to bring out the worst in the KMT, which in some incidents highlighted the party’s inability to fully dispense with its authoritarian past. By doing so, the activists revealed to the world the true nature of the party, which in many ways has come to resemble more the party under Chiang Ching-kuo than the one under Lee Teng-hui or even that during Ma’s first term. In one particular incident, both the government and the KMT acted with stunning lack of propriety by lecturing an international human rights organization about how they should regard the Sunflower Movement, prompting an indignant response that will go down in the annals of diplomatic reprimands. The many reports of improper attempts by representative offices overseas to contact supporters of the Sunflower Movement — in some cases “invitations to have tea” — also didn’t fly too well with the mature democracies in which those incidents are said to have occurred. That Taiwanese diplomats resorted to such desperate measures is a sign that Taipei was panicking; Taipei’s panic was, in many ways, a measure of the Sunflowers’ success. And sadly for Ma, foreign governments and international organizations took notice. The same can be said of the government’s unwillingness, or inability, to deal with the growing role of pro-unification gangsters, led by the Bamboo Union’s Chang An-le (“White Wolf”), in politics, as was made all too clear during the recent visit to Taiwan by China’s Taiwan Affairs Office Minister Zhang Zhijun, where peaceful protesters were physically assaulted by thugs while police looked on.

Of course the Ma government could survive the Sunflower and forge ahead as if nothing had happened, but it will do so at an increasing cost to its image and credibility, as mobilized society will not go away. In order to counter the now-freed genie of activism, Taipei will have to use more drastic measures — riot police, the courts, and propaganda among them — to counter protesters. Such escalation would, in turn, further damage its chances at the year-end seven-in-one elections and, more importantly, the presidential and legislative elections in 2016.

What remains to be seen is whether the Sunflower Movement’s many, albeit incomplete, successes will translate into policy. So far, there is little sign that the activists who led the occupation understand the necessity to bridge the chasm that separates contestation from politics. For many, all political institutions are corrupt and therefore cannot be trusted. Consequently, there is no assurance that high discontent with Ma’s KMT will translate into votes for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which is also regarded as part of the problem and is now being accused of taking over the KMT’s seat as the latter fills that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This anger at government institutions has furthermore translated into a refusal to enter politics. The few who understand that true change will only occur if ideas are implemented by political enablers — that is, legislators and officials — in other words, those who have decided that the next step is to enter politics, have been accused of something akin to treason.

Whether they change the KMT from the inside, join the DPP to reinvigorate it or start their own political party, activists will eventually have to accept the reality that they cannot remain eternal rebels. At some point they will have to dirty their hands and jump in. The Sunflower Movement has scored many successes — impressive successes in the fact of extraordinary odds — but all those will be meaningless if this wave of nationalism isn’t channeled properly. The greatest success of the Sunflowers, and the most desirable one, would be its ability to convince young, idealistic individuals that a life in politics is not only desirable, but a calling, a sacrifice that must be made for the sake of the island they call home.

As the Canadian intellectual and, for a brief period, politician Michael Ignatieff wrote in his magnificent book Fire and Ashes, “There is so much wrong with democratic politics today … that is easy to forget what is right about the democratic ideal.” The Sunflowers fought for that ideal, but as long as they stay out of politics, they will only fight half of the battle. True success, the object of our present discussion, requires that the entire battle be fought, and won.

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