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Sunflower Movement 10th Anniversary Reflects Taiwan’s Current Political Divisions

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Sunflower Movement 10th Anniversary Reflects Taiwan’s Current Political Divisions

From talk of revising the CSSTA to the KMT’s return to leadership of the legislature, the Sunflower Movement is echoing in Taiwan’s politics today.

Sunflower Movement 10th Anniversary Reflects Taiwan’s Current Political Divisions

In this Mar. 30, 2014, file photo, hundreds of thousands of people protest Taiwan’s services trade pact with China outside the presidential building in Taipei.

Credit: Depositphotos

The 10th anniversary of the Sunflower Movement was commemorated on Monday with a rally in front of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s legislature, in Taipei. 

This takes place as part of a series of events organized by the Economic Democracy Union, one of the civil society groups originally involved in the movement. Key movement figures such as former student leaders Lin Fei-fan and Dennis Wei were among the speakers. 

The Sunflower Movement was one of the largest social movements in Taiwanese history. The movement broke out on the eve of March 18, 2014, as a reaction to the passage of the Cross-Strait Services in Trade Agreement (CSSTA). The movement centered around the 23-day occupation of the Taiwanese legislature by student activists in reaction to the CSSTA. After the students were unexpectedly successful in getting into and occupying the legislative chambers, tens of thousands gathered around the legislature, forming an occupation encampment that spanned several blocks. 

An attempt by students to escalate on the night of March 23 by occupying Taiwan’s executive branch of government led to a police crackdown, sometimes referred to as one of the largest uses of police force since the end of martial law. A week later, the movement reached its zenith when an estimated 500,000 people – around 2.5 percent of the Taiwanese population – took to the streets on March 30, 2014, to show their support for the protesters.

The CSSTA would have allowed for Chinese investment in Taiwan’s service sector industry. Its passage took place as one of the then-ruling Ma Ying-jeou administration’s moves aimed at facilitating closer political and economic relations between Taiwan and China. 

It was not merely the bill itself that provoked outrage, but the means by which it was passed. In particular, KMT legislator Chang Ching-chung announced that the bill had passed review in 30 seconds, provoking outrage over what critics saw as a circumventing of the democratic process. 

Even before the CSSTA, Taiwan had already seen visible shifts in the media landscape after newspapers such as the China Times and television networks such as CtiTV were acquired by Want Want Group owner Tsai Eng-meng. The China Times, CtiTV, and other media outlets purchased by Want Want Group were seen as censoring critical coverage of China after they were acquired by the conglomerate. This contributed to concerns that Chinese investment in the service sector industry, which constitutes around 70 percent of Taiwan’s GDP, would lead to a significant impact on political freedoms. At the same time, concerns about the potential “mainlandization” of Taiwan were on the rise, with a sharp uptick in the number of Chinese tourists and visits by Chinese government officials. 

The political administration of Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is often perceived as having swept to power in 2016 by coasting off of momentum in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. Many of the young leaders of the Sunflower Movement entered electoral politics afterward, winning office as part of newly emergent third parties such as the New Power Party or as part of the DPP. The elections in 2016 marked the first time that a non-KMT party captured the majority in the Taiwanese legislature.

Ten years later, however, the political legacy of the movement continues to be up in the air. This was visible in the commemorations themselves, which sought to emphasize that the movement was not centered on any “gods,” but that all participants were all “classmates.” 

Part of the political contention regarding the movement’s legacy relates to the fact that some political figures that emerged from the movement – such as former New Power Party chair Huang Kuo-chang and former Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je – have pivoted in political orientation toward the pan-Blue camp. 

Even though Ko expressed support for the students protesting the CSSTA in 2014, he floated the idea of restarting talks for the CSSTA in the lead-up to the January 2024 presidential elections. The KMT has also begun to lean into the idea of reviving the CSSTA. 

It may not be surprising, then, that many speakers at the anniversary events lashed out at Huang and Ko during the rally, with the crowd responding with anger whenever their names came up. 

To this extent, it is noteworthy how framings for the movement today reflect Taiwan’s contemporary geopolitical concerns. Speakers at the 10th anniversary rally included representatives of Ukraine and Hong Kong, with the crowd shouting slogans in support of both. Ukraine and Hong Kong were brought up as other contexts in which democracies face threats from authoritarian states, with Hong Kong showing a potential future that Taiwan could face if it fell to Chinese rule. 

While the DPP did not have an official presence at the rally, the party’s slate of youth candidates in the 2024 election – termed “The Generation” – were former Sunflower Movement activists or young politicians who emerged in the wake of the movement. Similarly, youth activists were named to high positions in the DPP after the election, with former movement spokesperson Justin Wu becoming the head of the DPP’s Department of News. 

Contention in the legislature between the KMT and DPP may be of particular sensitivity in the weeks after the Sunflower Movement’s 10th anniversary. The KMT is attempting to leverage its narrow edge of 52 seats to the DPP’s 51 seats, as a result of which the president and vice president of the legislature are both KMT politicians despite the party falling short of an outright majority. This marks the first time the KMT has held control of the Legislative Yuan since 2016, making the Sunflower Movement parallels all the more poignant.

Last week, DPP politicians such as legislator Hung Sun-han, a former environmental activist who was himself active in the Sunflower Movement, criticized Legislative Yuan president Han Kuo-yu for ending scheduled questioning in such a manner that DPP legislators were not allowed to speak. For critics, Han’s actions recalled the “30-second incident” that sparked the Sunflower Movement. 

Similarly, one of the triggers for the Sunflower Movement was, in fact, Ma Ying-jeou’s attempts to oust then-KMT majority speaker Wang Jin-pyng from the party. Wang was seen as the leader of the comparatively pro-localization faction of the KMT. Ma, as leader of the “mainlander” faction of the KMT, was attempting to rid himself of a rival in the KMT. Yet this drew controversy because of the use of wiretaps on both Wang and DPP minority whip Ker Chien-ming, raising criticisms that Ma was using the Special Investigation Division (SID) of the Ministry of Justice to target political enemies. The SID also played a role in the corruption charges that put former DPP president Chen Shui-bian in jail when Ma took office.

Given the SID’s reputation for being used to politically target individuals at the behest of the president, the division was dissolved when Tsai Ing-wen took office. But the KMT is currently calling for reviving the SID and placing it under the authority of the legislature, seemingly hoping to influence the SID using its slim majority in the legislature and direct it to investigate corruption scandals involving DPP politicians. 

While protest on the scale of the Sunflower Movement is unlikely with the DPP holding the presidency, it is not impossible that such actions lead to pushback from the general public – particularly if the KMT’s actions bring up specters of the past. This is all the more so, in light of the KMT revisiting the notion of the CSSTA, calling up more direct memories of the Sunflower Movement.