Features | Politics | East Asia

How Technology Revolutionized Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement

Facebook and Google, the favored tools of dissidents, are now shaping Taiwan’s relationship with China.

By Vincent Y. Chao for
How Technology Revolutionized Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement
Credit: REUTERS/Pichi Chuang

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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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.”

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“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.