How Technology Revolutionized Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement
Image Credit: REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

How Technology Revolutionized Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement


Underneath the piercing gaze of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, a group of students sat, unshaved, unkempt and basking in the glow of their laptops. Amongst stacks of coffee cups, crudely drawn artwork, and piles of unevenly stacked office chairs, they were hard at work, plotting the next phase of their revolt against the government in Taiwan.

Three weeks earlier, the group had broken past police barriers and forcefully occupied the main Legislative assembly hall, defeating multiple attempts to evict them by the police. They sit engrossed: sending out press releases, updating the group’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and sparking discussion on PTT (an online bulletin board favored by many of the country’s youth). Others are dozing off, or hold a blank stare in their eyes, a product of weeks of tension, uncertainty and sleep deprivation.

Initially there were only a hundred of them – students from Taiwan’s top universities energized by a series of controversial land seizures and, in this case, upset at the government’s attempt to ram through a wide-ranging services trade deal with China. Their numbers subsequently swelled, buoyed by 24 hour news coverage, Facebook shares, and, of course, volunteers from the hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic supporters that have flooded the capital Taipei’s streets in recent weeks.

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Oliver Chen, 26, is a student from Taiwan’s prestigious National Taiwan University Law School. His hallmark, he says, is the colorful dress shirts he changes into every day. “Nothing else is changed. Shirts are all that I brought.” During the protests, he was responsible for the bank of computers to the left of Sun’s portrait. His team of English speakers worked with the foreign press to arrange interviews with the two protest leaders, Chen Wei-ting, 23, and Lin Fei-fan, 25.

Oliver and the rest of the students were organized. Very organized. Even the opposition, rumored to have ties to some of the student organizers, admits to such. “They could probably run a better campaign than the DPP,” said opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen during a media interview. The students have a medical center, distribution tables for snacks and goods, and even rooms for yoga or singing.

Oliver and three others, Chen Wei-ting, spokesperson Lin Yu-hsuan, and Sean Su, a blogger hailing from New York, worked hard. Revolution is serious business. Especially when it comes to answering questions posted on the social media site reddit’s Ask Me Anything forum, which connects internet users from all over the world with the group here in Taipei.

“You guys are so brave,” said one user, SuperRedneck from Florida. “I’m a student and I couldn’t even imagine overtaking a Taco Bell.” After taking a bite out of his takeout box of stir-fried noodles, Oliver paused for a second. He then responded: “Ask most of us here a couple of months ago, and we would have probably said the same.”

Thirty-five years ago, during Taiwan’s march towards democracy, these sorts of connections with the outside world would have been unthinkable. Protests were local, and even activists elsewhere in the country would have been hard-pressed to receive accurate first-hand information about ongoing events. Newspapers and magazines were tightly regulated. Phones and letters were kept under strict surveillance.

Instead of Facebook shares and instant messaging, organizers were mobilized using underground publications and clandestine meetings in smoke-filled university basements. And flyers and posters, not tweets, were how most people ended up hearing about any upcoming protests. “They’d hold a rally on Friday, and people would start to show up on Saturday and Sunday,” said Mattel Hsu, a researcher at Australia’s Monash University, specializing in Taiwan’s democracy movement.

This was the case for much of the martial law era, from the demonstrations leading up to the Kaohsiung Incident in 1979, all the way to the Wild Lily student movement in 1990. Instantaneous gatherings, much like what the students are today used to, were completely out of the question. Meanwhile, supporters overseas only learned of their efforts following the publication of news reports, if they were published at all.

Much of this is all ancient history to the students who jumped past police lines around the Legislature on the night of March 18. With the internet and cell phone signals intermittent in the chambers, the students quickly established two centers of command: one inside, and the other based in a lecture hall in a National Taiwan University campus a short walk away. They wasted no time: volunteers were appointed into security, press, social media and research teams, and the revolution was underway.

At the social media team on campus, Chen Ting-ru’s hands flew furiously over the keyboard, her concentration broken only by the occasional gulp of water. She was one of the administrators of the Black Island Youth Facebook page that was quickly going viral across the country (“likes” would jump from a few thousand to more than 200,000 in a few days’ time). Her job was to organize information coming out of the Legislature into small, easy-to-read snippets that could be readily shared amongst the movement’s supporters.

She also needed to process information coming in. Sightings of riot police and water cannon trucks were given a high priority. Opening a message from a supporter detailing the sighting of three such trucks parked on the corner of Tianjin Street and Beiping East Road, just a five-minute walk from the Legislature, Ting-ru writes: “Can you send me proof? I need photo proof. We have reports coming in from everywhere.” A picture duly arrived five minutes later.

Nearby, a colleague maintained a publicly accessible Google cloud document detailing the list of supplies needed and how donors could contribute. The list was closed for two days between March 22 and 23 while donated supplies overflowed roadside tents and volunteers scrambled to hand them out. It was later reopened (some of the more recent items required: extension cords, diesel generators and medical kits), and boxes are neatly stacked underneath a distribution center outdoors.

The other teams were in a similar state of controlled frenzy. At the press team, a 25-year-old journalism major was keeping the organizers updated with the latest news coming in about their protest. This was done through a group on Line, the Japanese messaging app, in 15-minute intervals. Press releases were prepared collaboratively on Google docs. And in the research team, groups of students, dominated by law majors, scoured online articles, statistics and oversea press reports in an attempt to debunk the government’s statements on the potential benefits of passing the services agreement with China.

Despite their cutting-edge Macbook Airs (the preferred laptop of the revolution), smartphones and iPads, facilities in the lecture hall were rudimentary. Students slept in shifts on cardboard boxes strewn around the concrete floor, hot meals appeared every two days, and most students could only exit but not enter the premises between the hours of midnight and 6am (due to the school’s policies). “Hello” and “Goodbye” were gradually replaced by Xinkule – which roughly translates as “You’ve had a hard day.”

Outside the relative calm in the Legislature and at the school campus, the protest was in full swing. Thousands of supporters were streaming into Zhongshan South, Jinan and Qingdao East roads each day in support of the student occupation. As with the police, employees of the three 7-11 convenience stores in the area were on a full 24-hour rotation schedule. There was uncertainty in the air, and protestors were wondering when, if ever, the police would begin to forcefully eject them from around the building.

Jason Lin, 25, was one of the protestors sitting on the corner of Zhenjiang and Qingdao East streets, the critical juncture at the northeast corner of the legislative building. A postgrad at National Kaohsiung Normal University, he arrived in Taipei on the afternoon of March 21 after a browsing through Facebook. The official Black Island Youth Facebook page had shared a picture calling on supporters to fill the surrounding streets between midnight and noon each day, when it deemed police most likely to strike.

“After watching it on TV for the past two days, I realized that I had to be here,” Jason said, sitting alongside thousands of similarly mobilized protestors as they listened to student speakers, university professors and pop singers take turns on stage to deride the services agreement one-by-one. “I think it’s pretty important that this movement goes on so that the government is forced to listen to us,” he added, echoing demands by organizers that the legislators reject the agreement for a further, more substantive, review.

With Facebook’s penetration rate in Taiwan amongst the highest in the world (edging out Hong Kong), that shared picture succeeded beyond expectations. By the weekend of March 22, the students were in firm control of the legislative chambers and the surrounding streets. Even during the night, thousands slept on newspapers, and in rudimentary sleeping bags and tents. But the government’s position had not changed. During a press conference on the morning of March 23, President Ma expressed sympathy for the students, but said that the services agreement with China would proceed as planned. It was essential, he said, to allow Taiwan to compete in an increasingly globalized market.

His response was not unexpected. But inside and outside the Legislature, students were growing restless. A self-imposed ultimatum for a government response had come and gone. Initially, student organizers proposed to take over the rest of the legislative complex. This was discussed but ultimately rejected (civic organizations said that it would break a truce with the police). But by the afternoon, a consensus had emerged. They would support a splinter group of students that would rapidly assemble in front of the cabinet offices (Executive Yuan), overwhelm police and occupy the complex. This plan was deemed the most likely to further galvanize both students and the public.

For this operation, two factors were identified as essential. First, there would have to a method of spreading the message for students to meet in front of the Executive Yuan at a specified time (and for students to wear gloves, in order to scale the barbed wire barricades). Second, it would have to be done covertly to slow the police response. A Facebook event or a Line group, thought to be unsafe and susceptible to government infiltration, was out of the question. Instead, the students decided that messages would go out through word-of-mouth and that only trusted confederates would be informed.

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