Written by Ming-Yeh Rawnsley.

The term ‘new civic movement’ refers to the various mass social movements mobilised by students and civic groups in Taiwan in recent years. Examples include the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement (2012–2013, 反媒體壟斷運動), the public demonstration of 3 August 2013 triggered by the death of a young Army Corporal, Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘), [i] and the Sunflower Movement (18 March–10 April 2014, 太陽花學運). The word ‘new’ is simply to differentiate them from the grass-root social movements of the 20th century which made a significant contribution to Taiwan’s political transition from authoritarian rule to democracy in the 1980s and the 1990s.

While it may be too early and overly simplistic to declare victory for the new civic movements in Taiwan, it can be argued that there are three determining characteristics which enable these movements to galvanise massive public sympathy, generate media attention and exercise social, cultural and political impact:

(1) Many of these movements are highly self-disciplined. The organisers call for peaceful protests and the activists pride themselves for not leaving a mess behind.

(2) While activists may react spontaneously to unexpected events, the movements are often extremely well coordinated with effective use of information and communications technologies (ICTs). Some researchers are particularly intrigued by the use of ICTs. However if we treat the adaptation of modern technologies within a broader context and view it as an integral part of how the new generations of Taiwanese activists today organise their actions and to articulate their causes, we begin to gain further insight into how sophisticated the organisers of many new civic movements really are. During the occupation of the Legislative Yuan, critics of student movements labelled the activists ‘mobs’ and accused them of ‘anarchy’. This is a false accusation as the evidence has shown that the student activists are passionate, and that their behaviour is rational, committed and non-violent.

(3) As far as the student-led Anti-Media Monopoly Movement and the Sunflower Movement are concerned, the activists have demonstrated an intensive drive to engage the general public and to make a thoughtful contribution to issues relevant to their campaign. For example, as described by Ketty Chen (28 February 2013), during the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement ‘a group of university students travelled around Taiwan in the back of a small, old pickup truck […]. The students stopped in front of train stations, night markets and temples and stood on a Taiwan Beer case (instead of a soapbox) using a megaphone to address the gathering crowd on what they perceived as the dangers of media monopoly and the deteriorating quality of democracy in Taiwan’. The students also regularly invited communications scholars to offer lectures and lead in-depth discussions about the media. Eventually the campaigners designed a draft version of the anti-media monopoly act for debate in the Legislative Yuan in 2013 (see Anti-Media Monopoly Policies in Taiwan). Similarly during the occupation of the Legislative Yuan between 18 March and10 April 2014, subject specialists were frequently invited to the legislative chamber to talk to the activists about the Constitution and the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA, 海峽兩岸服務貿易協議or 服貿). As the stalemate with the KMT administration continued, the students soon decided to organise a people’s legislature and to discuss the CSSTA line by line themselves. This has further strengthened the protesters’ intellectual and moral credibility, and allowed student representatives to present convincing and intelligent arguments in numerous television talk shows in front of their opponents.

Indeed it would be impossible to imagine that the students could occupy the Legislative Yuan for up to two weeks, largely peacefully, if they did not enjoy the support of civil society across party lines, ethnic division and ideological orientation. For example, when the government cut off the electricity and water supply in order to force the activists out, local engineers quickly moved into the legislative chamber and set up temporary electricity generators. Medical practitioners also entered the building to ensure the welfare of the occupants. In addition, a wide range and huge quantity of goods donated to the protesters, which helped sustain the occupation of the Legislative Yuan, signalled popular endorsement.

It is at this juncture that I would like to turn the discussion to further democratisation in Taiwan. The new civic movements strike a chord with what already exists within modern Taiwanese society, i.e. a deep dissatisfaction with the increasingly polarised party politics, ineffective representative democracy and widening social inequality. The existing democratic system, which is a legacy of the democratisation process of the 20th century, seems no longer adequate to serve the citizens of the 21st century. The island is in need of a ‘second wave’ of democratisation.

It is worth noting that during the Sunflower Movement, the KMT government and the students both used the ideals of democracy to justify their positions. The KMT administration and their supporters praised the efforts of democratisation of the 1980s and the 1990s. They argued that since Taiwan has become a democracy, all grievances must be resolved through the existing political framework. They believed that the students were anti-democratic because they engaged in direct action outside the legal structure to challenge authority. However governmental indifference to popular sentiment is a commonplace in all existing political systems. As Gary Rawnsley (19 March 2014) has stated, ‘The question of legality is tricky and boils down to the old “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” type of argument. Breaking into and occupying the Legislative Yuan is illegal, but such forms of protest are often a weapon of the weak, an instrument of activism used by groups of people who are frustrated that their voice is not being heard through any other channel’.

I have argued elsewhere that democratisation of the 20th century has been the most remarkable achievement in modern Taiwan. However we must not ignore how the island’s ‘first wave’ of democratisation has left many challenges yet to be confronted. For example, is Taiwan a presidential or cabinet system? Where are the checks and balances to presidential power? How can the capacity and quality of the legislature be enhanced? What is the remedy for the aggressive commercialisation of the media which has hindered, not improved, the performance of the media industry in general? I agree with Samir Amin’s (2011) assertion that democratisation is an endless process. It should not be reduced to multiple-party elections which do not necessarily empower the people and permit them to transform society. Democratisation is multi-dimensional. It integrates the major issues of gender, justice, social equality and collective responsibility, as well as individual liberties which should be developed, not restricted.

As an overseas scholar who is detached from the struggle between political parties in Taiwan, my attention is always on the social and the cultural dimension of democratisation, which, to paraphrase Raymond Williams, is a ‘long revolution’ for societal transformation and progression. When martial law was lifted in Taiwan in 1987 and President Lee Teng-hui agreed to constitutional reforms after the Wild Lily Movement (野百合學運) in 1990 I wrote, like many contemporary researchers, in a celebratory mood at the time about the consolidation of democratisation. Upon reflection, I realise that I was in fact quite unsure what ‘consolidation of democratisation’ should look like, how a juvenile democracy may transit to a more mature democracy, and what form such a transformation may take, with what consequences. The new civic movements of the 21st century seem to have finally offered some answers to these questions.

Ming-yeh Rawnsley is a CPI Fellow and Regular Contributor to the blog. Ming Yeh is also a Research Associate in the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS, and Secretary-General of the European Association of Taiwan Studies.


[i] Chin-fu Hung (2014), ‘The internet and Taiwan’s new civic movement in the information age: Hung Chung-chiu’s Case (2013)’, Asiacape: Digital Asia 1 (1–2): 54–77.