Sunflowers End Occupation of Taiwan’s Legislature

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Sunflowers End Occupation of Taiwan’s Legislature

J. Michael Cole reports from Taipei for The Diplomat.

Sunflowers End Occupation of Taiwan’s Legislature
Credit: J. Michael Cole for The Diplomat

585 hours after they led an unprecedented occupation of the Legislative Yuan to protest a trade pact with China, hundreds of Taiwanese on April 10 vacated the country’s parliament and were welcomed by tens of thousands of supporters during a ceremony high in emotions.

As promised during a press conference on April 7, the about 300 activists from the Sunflower Movement pulled out of the legislature at 6 pm, ending an occupation that has sparked intense debate within Taiwanese society and attracted the attention of an otherwise indifferent foreign media.

Hundreds of young Taiwanese raided the legislature on the evening of March 18 following a sudden announcement the previous day by Chang Ching-chung, a legislator from the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), that the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) had been “fully reviewed” and would now be put to a vote in the legislature, where the KMT was certain to prevail. Angered by the move — bickering among legislators had prevented the review from even starting — the activists, who had initiated a campaign warning of the pact’s potential harmful impact on Taiwanese society since its signing in Shanghai in June 2013, decided to escalate by launching the unprecedented occupation.

While the CSSTA served as the catalyst, various problems with governance mechanisms and lack of accountability compelled the activists to take more drastic measures, which besides the occupation of the legislature included the brief invasion of the Executive Yuan, the seat of the government, on the evening of March 23. In the nine months prior to the occupation, precursor groups to the Sunflower Movement, including the Black Island Youth Alliance, had held peaceful protests and information sessions to raise awareness about the pact’s shortcomings (its expected impact on the island’s GDP growth is estimated at a mere 0.03 percent of GDP over a period of ten years) and potential threats (national security, freedom of expression, jobs in vulnerable service sectors), only to be excluded from public hearings organized by the government and the KMT — often with police shields.

In the about three weeks that followed, the Sunflower Movement waged a war for hearts and minds against the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou, which insisted that the trade pact had to be ratified “as is” by June and warned that failure to do so would undermine Taiwan’s ability to join multilateral trade groups like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). After initially requesting that the CSSTA be subjected to a line-by-line review in the legislature, as agreed by KMT and the opposition Democratic progressive Party (DPP) legislators in 2013, the movement, realizing that such a review would not have teeth, called for the retraction of the pact and the implementation of an institutionalized supervision mechanism to oversee any future deals with China. While the government agreed in principle to such a mechanism and tabled its own draft legislation, it maintained that the CSSTA should be exempt, a decision that put a damper on negotiations.

Following a March 30 rally organized by the movement, which attracted approximately 350,000 people, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, a KMT member, visited the legislature and promised to not call for future bipartisan review of the CSSTA until the oversight mechanism had been implemented. Wang’s announcement caught the Ma administration off-guard and the KMT accused the speaker of “betraying” the party. However, the Sunflower Movement regarded Wang’s declaration as an act of goodwill and soon afterwards announced that it would vacate the legislature on April 10, exactly 35 years after the enactment of the U.S. Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), an act of Congress meant to ensure the security of Taiwan following Washington’s decision to switch diplomatic relations with China.

Although a few splinter groups associated with the movement opposed leaving the legislature and argued that the government could not be trusted to fulfill its promises, the core leadership succeeded in convincing the rest of the group that it was time to leave. Not only did they have public support behind them, they were also exhausted after 24 days marked by lack of sleep, irregular meals, and constant media attention.

As tens of thousands of people gathered around the legislature for a last rally, a few dozen members of the alliance who had occupied the second floor of the legislature began evacuating at about 4 pm. As they climbed down a single ladder, hundreds of teary-eyed supporters cheered them with rounds of applause.

Inside the legislature, the hundreds of activists who remained were preparing for their exit at 6 pm. By 5 pm, several hundred police in riot gear had gathered at the building’s various points of access. The atmosphere inside the chamber was calm, and by then most of the posters, placards, banners and other artifacts that had accumulated over the past three weeks had been removed and were to be preserved by academic institutions. The day before, members of the movement had spent hours cleaning carpets and erasing any remnants of their occupation.

After a moving speech by movement leaders Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, it was time to leave. Outside the legislature on Jinnan Road, tens of thousands of people had by then packed the area, many of them carrying sunflowers. As the activists emerged from the building, a full brass band played the song “Island’s Sunrise” (島嶼天光) by the band FireEX, which has become the anthem for the movement. In the two hours that followed, several students, academics and activists delivered emotional speeches on a makeshift stage and reaffirmed their commitment to continuing the fight.

As noted in a previous article, the Sunflower Movement was en entirely new phenomenon in Taiwan, an awakening from a slumber of defeatism that will likely change the face of politics on the island as well as Taipei’s relations with Beijing. The movement has emphasized an identity that appeals to the majority of Taiwanese. It does not oppose trade deals, nor does it reject cultivating good relations with China (in fact, a number of Chinese are known to have visited the site and interacted with activists during the occupation). But it has drawn lines with regards to the ways of life and freedoms of all Taiwanese and sent a clear warning that anyone who crosses those lines will face a challenge from thousands of highly educated, connected, and united Taiwanese. The movement spans generations, has drawn the involvement of dozens of lawyers, hundreds of doctors, academics, university heads, and has finally transcended the “ethnic” politics that for far too long had kept the nation in a perpetual state of war with itself. Perhaps most tellingly, the young man in charge of security inside the legislature — a third-generation “mainlander” — was the son of the former official in charge of security for former president Chiang Ching-kuo, who held various senior positions in government when Taiwan was still under Martial Law. With such a shift, it looked like Taiwan had entered a new phase in its history from which there was no turning back. There no longer was an original sin, only a determined gaze toward the future, unblemished by self-doubt or fear of defying the powers that be. They had defied an entire state apparatus, pro-China oligarchs, biased media, world indifference and a famous gangster, and they stood their ground. To them, there was nothing inevitable about their fate, as CCP propagandists would argue; it was theirs to shape.

Despite the celebrations and the promise of warm beds and being reunited with their families, the activists were keenly aware that the battle was not over. Many of them, including Lin and Chen, face prosecution and could be charged with crimes that carry a sentence of up to seven years in jail. Although the Minister of Justice announced earlier in the week that students should not expect preferential treatment under the law, it was perfectly clear on the night of April 10 that if the state made good on its threat to prosecute the movement, a new round of protests would soon emerge, and possibly nationwide.

There was also a lot of doubt about the Ma administration’s willingness or ability to meet their demands. The leadership made it clear that it would pay very close attention to how the government handles the CSSTA and oversight mechanism, and has vowed to punish officials who break the agreement reached with Wang through recalls and electoral retribution.

In a worrying sign, a KMT source confirmed the same day that the party would appeal a March 19 district court ruling allowing Wang to retain his KMT membership, which President Ma had sought to see revoked amid allegations that Wang had unduly influenced a breach-of-trust case involving an opposition lawmaker. Many saw the decision as a sign that the Ma administration was trying to punish Wang for “betraying” the party by agreeing to the movement’s demands.

“We are fighting a war against a state apparatus with massive resources, an authoritarian stranglehold on the executive and legislative branches of government, and a tight-knit organization,” the Sunflower leadership announced in a speech that was eventually released in Chinese, Japanese and English. “No matter how tired we are, we will not budge from our last stand.”

“This is war.”