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The ‘Memory War’ Over Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement

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The ‘Memory War’ Over Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement

The public perception of the Sunflower Movement within Taiwan varies markedly across different demographics and political viewpoints.

The ‘Memory War’ Over Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement

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, Taiwan.

Credit: Depositphotos

In the evening of March 18, 2024, hundreds of people gathered outside Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, the country’s highest legislative organ, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the “Sunflower Movement.” A decade earlier, a similar number of students and activists had stormed and occupied the Legislative Yuan for nearly a month. Their protest was ignited by the Kuomintang (KMT) administration’s signing of the Cross-Strait Services in Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with Beijing, coupled with a lack of transparency in the legislative ratification process. 

The demonstrators argued that the CSSTA would tightly integrate Taiwan’s economy with China’s, potentially leading to massive Chinese investments dominating Taiwan’s service sector, which constitutes over 70 percent of the national GDP. They feared such economic dependence could jeopardize Taiwan’s hard-earned democracy and sovereignty, facilitating Beijing’s ultimate goal of cross-strait unification.

The Sunflower Movement received widespread support throughout Taiwanese society, drawing hundreds of thousands of participants at its peak. It successfully led to the cancellation of the CSSTA and prompted the proposal of the Cross-strait Agreement Supervisory Act, which nevertheless remained stuck in limbo for the past decade. This legislative standstill has effectively blocked the approval of any proposed agreements between Taiwan and China.

The Sunflower Movement marked a watershed moment in both Taiwanese politics and international affairs. Domestically, it heralded a significant political shift, with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which supported the movement and opposes Taiwan’s unification with China, triumphing over the pro-unification KMT in three consecutive presidential elections. This shift is also reflected in the strengthening of a distinct Taiwanese identity, with over 60 percent of the population identifying solely as Taiwanese since the movement. 

Additionally, the Sunflower Movement has catalyzed more robust civic engagement, with citizens participating more actively in politics – joining political parties, civil society groups, and engaging in public discourse. 

In a broader international context, the Sunflower Movement signified the beginning of Taiwan’s strategic economic de-risking from China at a time when much of the world was intensifying economic ties with Beijing. The movement also coincided with other significant global events, such as the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine and the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, placing it within a larger narrative of global resistance to the expansion of authoritarianism.

Nevertheless, the public perception of the Sunflower Movement within Taiwan varies markedly across different demographics and political viewpoints. For many observers, the movement represents a pivotal shift in Taiwan’s political terrain, heavily favoring the DPP. It also served as a launching pad for some of the movement’s prominent participants, who have transitioned from activism into political careers. New political parties like the New Power Party and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) claim to carry forward the spirit of the movement, appealing to independent voters disillusioned with the traditional blue-green political spectrum. 

The varied interpretations of the Sunflower Movement are understood as part of a “memory war” that began following the outbreak of the movement and continues to this day. While some outright deny the movement’s contributions, even its supporters often shape their narratives to suit their political agendas. For some, the movement is viewed as a holy war preventing Taiwan from falling under China’s influence. Conversely, others see the movement primarily as a protest against the procedural issue in the legislative process concerning cross-strait agreements, framing it not as an inherently anti-China or pro-independence movement but as a demand for greater transparency and adherence to democratic process. 

Narratives That Never Fade Away

The first “memory war” over the Sunflower Movement began in tandem with the protest. Protesters saw the movement as a crucial intervention, necessary to pause the rapid economic integration of Taiwan with China and prevent increasing Chinese control. In contrast, the KMT administration and Beijing characterized the protest as violent and illegitimate, asserting that it jeopardized Taiwan’s economic prosperity. 

During the Sunflower Movement, Chinese state media criticized the occupation of Taiwan’s legislature, labeling it as an irrational “political use of populism” and warning that Taiwan’s economy would suffer without open economic policies. Beijing further argued that failing to pass the CSSTA “was a major setback for Taiwan’s economic and industrial development and the advancement of people’s interests.” 

Then-President of Taiwan Ma Ying-jeou expressed concerns that the protests would damage Taiwan’s international credibility and strain cross-strait relations, suggesting it would hamper efforts to liberalize Taiwan’s trade. Echoing this sentiment in 2024, KMT vice president candidate Jaw Shaw-kong argued that the Sunflower Movement had weakened Taiwan’s economy and trade sector. 

In response, Lin Fei-fan, one of the student leaders of the movement, countered that over the past decade, Taiwan has successfully internationalized its economy and gained more support from the international community. The DPP also highlighted Hong Kong’s economic struggle following the city’s closer integration with China as a cautionary tale. The party argued that Taiwan’s future lies in global engagement rather than economic integration with China.

The second type of controversy surrounding the Sunflower Movement involves moral accusations against some of its leaders and notable participants. Allegations of controversial behavior during and after the movement are often cited as evidence of moral degradation and a lack of credibility among these “Sunflowers.” KMT legislator Hsu Chiao-hsin, for example, listed the student leaders involved in criminal cases and scandals, as well as those who have experienced unsuccessful political careers, to argue that the “Sunflower generation” has been largely rejected by Taiwanese voters.

The third narrative thread concerns the Sunflower Movement’s relationship with the DPP, Taiwan’s main opposition party in 2014, which returned to power in 2016. The movement claimed to be non-partisan to avoid the accusation of being part of political struggle. The DPP also managed to keep a cautious distance from the movement despite the party’s supportive position of the protest. This approach was aimed at preventing the movement from being overly politicized, which could overshadow the demands raised by the protesters.

However, the Sunflower Movement faced allegations of being instigated by the DPP, which had failed to block the CSSTA’s passage. Critics contended that the DPP used the protesters as a political tool to challenge the KMT. This narrative gained traction particularly when several movement leaders transitioned into prominent roles within the DPP. For instance, Lin Fei-fan was appointed as the DPP’s deputy secretary-general, and Lai Pin-yu was nominated and subsequently elected as a DPP legislator. Both faced accusations of exploiting the movement as a stepping stone for their political career, thereby betraying young voters who supported them.

Politicized Sunflower Movement

Following the conclusion of the Sunflower Movement, various discussions have continued to evaluate its legacy and whether it truly achieved its objectives. Some of the movement’s prominent participants claim partial victory, pointing to the successful stalling of the CSSTA and the enhanced oversight of cross-strait agreements. Lin Fei-fan has argued that Taiwan is enjoying economic prosperity and political liberty as a direct result of avoiding deeper economic integration with China. 

However, critiques of the Sunflower Movement’s unfulfilled objectives persist. One notable participant, former Taipei City Mayor and TPP chair Ko Wen-je, has questioned the DPP for its failure to pass the Cross-Strait Agreement Supervisory Act, a major appeal of the movement, after the DPP’s eight years in power. 

There is also growing concern among the youth who were the movement’s main base of support. KMT legislator Jonathan Lin pointed out that key issues important to young people, such as improvements to the social welfare system, remain unaddressed, while cross-strait tension has escalated. Scholars like Lue Jen-der have noted that the ongoing economic challenges that outlasted the movement are fueling a rise in populism among younger generations.

The last type of narrative centers on the contentious issue of who is considered a “traitor” of the movement’s ideals. This debate has become highly politicized, especially between the DPP, a staunch supporter of the movement, and key figures of the movement now associated with the TPP, such as Ko and legislator Huang Kuo-chang. Some of the protest leaders criticized Ko and Huang for allegedly pursuing their own political interests by flipping to support the passage of CSSTA and advocating for closer ties with Beijing, stances that starkly contradict the spirits of the Sunflower Movement.

Ko, however, has argued that the Sunflower Movement was not a protest against the CSSTA itself but was primarily a response to the procedural issues – specifically the “black box” non-transparent process involved in the signing of cross-strait agreements. Huang also accused the DPP of being the real traitor of the movement by ignoring the movement’s real demand for passing the Cross-Strait Agreement Supervisory Act.


The 10th anniversary of the Sunflower Movement does not mark the end of the debate over its historical impact. Initially, the DPP seemed to be the movement’s principal beneficiary, securing major electoral victories over the KMT in 2014 and 2016. Since then, however, the DPP has only managed to maintain a relative advantage in the presidential elections in 2020 and 2024, while the opposition parties regained support at local levels.

Over the past decade, the debate on the effects of the Sunflower Movement continued to evolve, extending beyond a simple binary choice regarding the CSSTA. Younger generations, once assumed to be the natural supporters of the Sunflower Movement, are increasingly displaying skepticism or even indifference toward its causes. For the Gen Z generation, the movement may appear more as a historical event noted in textbooks than as a relatable experience. 

Landmark events in Taiwan’s democratization like the Kaohsiung Incident in 1979 and Wild Lily Movement in 1990 have spawned generations of leaders and activists who have played significant roles in Taiwan’s politics and civil society to realize their ideals. In the face of the never-ending memory war, the participants of the Sunflower Movement shoulder the monumental task of charting a course to safeguard the movement’s objectives from distortion or oblivion.