Written by Ben Goren.
At six o’clock on Monday April 7, twenty one days after starting their historic occupation of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan main chambers, the representatives of the ‘Sunflower Student Movement’ held a press conference to announce that they would end this phase of their mobilisation on April 10. Despite a pervasive ‘blackout’ of the political protest among some of the world’s mainstream media outlets, Taiwanese students have managed to engage and hold the interest and support of millions of people inside and outside of Taiwan during their campaign to prevent the Taiwanese government, via the Legislative Caucus of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), from ratifying the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) without due process and legislative oversight. Although the students have declared that the end to their occupation of the Legislative Yuan is but one development in a continuing series of moves to defend, enhance, and reform Taiwanese democracy, it is worth noting at this point the truly unprecedented and historic nature of the movement.
Taiwanese democratic praxis arguably began in earnest following the 1991 constitutional revisions that replaced the permanent Legislative Yuan members, who had held their seats since their exile from China in 1949, with directly elected representatives drawn solely from Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matzu. That change came about largely as a result of Taiwan’s first independent student protest which came to be known as the ‘Wild Lily Student Movement’. The students occupied Freedom Square in Taipei in opposition to the permanent seating of the ‘dinosaur legislators’ which they argued stood in contradiction to the claims of the KMT that the Republic of China was a democratic polity.
The students negotiated with then President Lee Tung-hui and, working with the recently formed Democratic Progressive Party, agitated peacefully for extensive political reforms that would enfranchise Taiwanese voters and give them a voice in the administration of their nation. Constitutional reforms continued through the 1990s and early 2000s leading to direct elections for President, the freezing and downsizing of the Taiwan Provincial Government, the introduction of a referendum law, the abolition of the National Assembly, and the streamlining of the number of seats in the Legislative Yuan. The Wild Lily students were feted for their role in defending and reforming the institutions of state and making them directly accountable to public opinion as manifest through regular elections. Many of the students went on to become famous academics, lawyers, and politicians. Without the Wild Lily protests, it is arguable that politics in Taiwan might still be the exclusive domain of a KMT quasi-Leninist party-state today. The students took unprecedented actions and secured historic changes in the landscape of Taiwanese politics.
In November 2008, students mobilised again, this time independently of the DPP, in opposition to what they argued were brutal and anti-democratic actions of the Ma administration and police in suppressing opposition to the visit of Chinese Association of Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Chairman Chen Yunlin. This student movement, dubbed the ‘Wild Strawberry Student Movement’, also occupied Freedom Square but also a wider number of sites across the nation for a period of two months. Standing firm against smear attacks from pro-government media, threats from their universities and teachers, and the attempts of the government to patronise, belittle, and then ignore them, the students braved winter weather and eventually, in 2014, won a major political battle when the Council of Grand Justices ruled that the Parade and Assembly Law, used as a tool by the Ma administration to physically disperse and assault peaceful protests, was in fact unconstitutional. That law will become void on January 1st 2015 and a key tool of the State to justify suppressing dissent will no longer be legal. Once again, non-partisan students had produced lasting and historic concrete changes to Taiwan’s political landscape, and practice of democracy.
On March 17 2014, the KMT legislative caucus tried to bypass standard procedures and legislative protocol to claim that it had reviewed the CSSTA in a meeting that lasted 30 seconds. The fact that the unilateral announcement of the completion of the review came from the restrooms of the Legislative Yuan became a national joke and a symbol of the opaque nature of both the government’s handling and signing of agreements with the PRC and the cynical manipulation and abuse of legislative processes by political parties and their elected representatives. Quoting from a translation of the students’ March 7 press conference, the Sunflower Student Movement occupation objected to how “in terms of national constitutional democracy, President Ma and his administration, since taking office in 2008, has practiced autocracy, abused their political power, damaged the rule of law and our human rights, and brought forth a constitutional crisis of democratic regression in Taiwan”.
In response, a group of three hundred of them, many of whom had spent months if not years already mobilised across a range of other issues they felt the Government was ignoring majority public opinion on, rushed to occupy the Legislative Yuan main chamber. They succeeded and in the process sparked Taiwan’s largest, most historic, and unprecedented unpartisan student protest yet. On the evening of March the 23rd, a group of students occupied the Executive Yuan, the cabinet offices of the government of Taiwan. The subsequent physical and bloody removal of the students by riot police, including attacks on students in the streets outside the Executive Yuan, drew widespread public outrage culminating in the largest ever public protest held in Taiwan. On March 30, almost 2% of Taiwan’s entire population marched in support of the students occupying the Legislative Yuan and their defence of democratic accountability and transparency.
Twenty four days after occupying the building, the students will, after thoroughly cleaning the chamber they have peacefully occupied despite police attempts to violently interrupt their sit-in, finally exit the Legislative Yuan. Many of them will likely face criminal prosecution and academic penalties. As they exit, there will no doubt be many commentators who will compare them to the heroes of the hapless student Taiwanese baseball team that, against all expectations, eventually went all the way to the Koshien Championship finals in Japan in 1931. Some may argue that by exiting the building the students have ‘lost’ their fight and that politics as usual will return. If they are right, they can only be partially so.
The students have won a somewhat tenuous verbal agreement from the KMT Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) that a new bill to monitor cross-strait agreement will first be passed by the Legislative Yuan before it begins its review of the CSSTA. At present the Executive Yuan and the students have both presented their versions of such a bill and it is unsure which one will be put through the legislature. Furthermore, both President Ma Ying-jeou and Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) are insisting that the bill not apply to the CSSTA and that only the arguably ‘paper-tiger’ Executive Yuan version be applied. Whatever happens, it is certain that there are many more developments in the evolution of the Sunflower Student Movement protest yet to come. Indeed, it’s political impact may be far reaching and only properly understood in hindsight many years from now. The occupation is coming to an end but it is far too early for anyone to come to premature conclusions on what it has or hasn’t achieved.
What we do know about the Sunflower Student Movement is that there has never been a time in Taiwan’s history when the Legislative Yuan has been occupied. That has been unprecedented. The students didn’t just occupy it, they have occupied it for twenty four days. In addition, the students have mobilised and organised resources without the direct assistance of any major political party, charitable organisation, or corporation. They have resisted constant character assassination by a majority of mainstream media outlets in Taiwan, shrugged off mischaracterisation and belittlement from international media and pro-China corporations, dealt with pressure from their parents and from their schools, ignored veiled threats and empty promises from the President and the Government, stopped ‘ally’ politicians and celebrities from appropriating, diluting or misdirecting their campaign, and, after all these hurdles, have managed thus far to be completely consistent in their demands and rationales for their actions.
In my estimation, like the Wild Lily and Wild Strawberry Student Movements before it, the Sunflower Student Movement has not just been a successful exercise of direct democracy in defence of exploited institutions of state, but it is another critical milestone in the evolution of Taiwan’s democracy, a catalyst in Taiwan’s democratic transition and ongoing efforts at decolonisation, and above all a vivid and robust demonstration of the Taiwanese spirit and will to determine their own affairs and govern themselves via democratic praxis into the future.