Written by Ming-sho Ho.

On March 9 2014, Taiwan’s annual anti-nuclear demonstrations took place in several major cities. But unlike last year’s event, which witnessed an unprecedented scale of mobilization with 220,000 people taking to the streets, inclement weather in Taipei appeared to have dampened people’s willingness to join the rally. In the end, only 130,000 people were estimated to have taken part, and officials did not even bother to comment on the controversial issue of Nuclear Power Plant #4 (NPP-4), which was supposed to have started operations this year. When it seemed that Taiwan’s recently resurgent anti-nuclear activism in the wake of 2011 Fukushima Incident was on the brink of failure to stop the construction of NPP-4, the Sunflower Movement suddenly erupted on March 18. The 24 days during which the Legislative Yuan was occupied grabbed the nation’s attention. Although the protracted standoff between students and the government concluded relatively peacefully with neither side able to claim a clear victory, Taiwan’s political terrain was reshaped by the storm.

Lin Yi-hsiung, the saintly leader of Taiwan’s democracy movement, announced his intention to stage a hunger strike on April 15, which would start on April 22 and he was determined to carry out to the very end unless the NPP-4 was immediately stopped. Lin had been advocating that the NPP-4 be put to referendum since 1994. At that time, his hunger protest was instrumental in collecting more than 110,000 signatures. Lin also launched an island-wide march four times between 1994 and 2003. He publicly renounced his DPP membership in 2006, partly because then-President Chen Shui-bian failed to honor his pledge to hold a NPP-4 referendum.

Originally Lin planned to carry out his protest in late March, but he decided to postpone it so as not divert attention from the Sunflower Movement. Since Lin’s steely determination and willingness to assume martyrdom for the anti-nuclear cause was well-known, his protest not only exerted a great moral pressure on the KMT government, whose promise to stage a referendum in February 2013 had become equivocal once the NPP-4 construction approached completion, it also gave a powerful stimulus to the opposition party and anti-nuclear activists. In the end, Lin’s hunger strike lasted 8 days and he was hospitalized on April 29. It was during these 8 days that Taiwan’s anti-nuclear movement experienced another high tide and finally secured some tangible gains.

What happened in this unexpected spell of intensive anti-nuclear mobilization? The DPP under Su Tseng-chang launched an emergency mission to save Lin, understanding that the opposition party would have to shoulder the moral responsibility should anything happen him. The DPP lawmakers proposed a special law on NPP-4 referendum, which did not require any threshold of voter participation. The KMT flatly rejected this idea and the DPP’s later concession of adding a 25% voter turnout clause. Between April 20 and 25, Su arranged a series of open meetings with KMT leaders to resolve the crisis. Taipei City Mayor Hau Lung-pin agreed to put NPP-4 on hold, while New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu concurred on the need to lower the threshold requirement for the NPP-4 referendum. While Su’s meeting with potential successors to Ma Ying-jeou appeared successful, his face-to-face talk with the current leadership in the central government, Premier Jiang Yi-huah and Ma, was mired in bitter recriminations and partisanship. Su’s intervention highlighted the growing rift among the previously pro-nuclear KMT. Since the NPP-4 represented a major concern for the voters in the Greater Taipei metropolitan area, a KMT stronghold, its future leaders had to appear more accommodating to the strong anti-nuclear public opinion.

Aside from the DPP’s offensives, the anti-nuclear NGOs also stepped up their activities. Two major anti-nuclear umbrella federations, the Taiwan Anti-Nuclear Action Alliance (台灣反核行動聯盟) and Stop Nukes Now (全國廢核行動平台), launched campaigns to modify the existing procedure for holding referenda. An intensive pattern of protest activities emerged. In the evening of April 24, 4,000 people took part in a human-chain protest. In the morning of April 26 there was an anti-nuclear fun run with 7,000 participants and an evening rally which attracted more than 10,000 people. The climax came with a demonstration on April 27. More than 50,000 joined the march in the afternoon, and when they arrived at Taipei Railroad Station on Zhongxiao West Road, a spontaneous sit-in took place. The confrontation lasted until the early morning before police used water cannon to disperse the crowd.

These activities took place in Taipei, but during the hectic period, other cities also witnessed massive outpourings of sympathy for Lin Yi-hsiung, manifest in candlelight vigils, wearing yellow ribbons and sit-ins. At the same time, pro-independence activists staged a series of direct actions. On April 22, Taiwan Referendum Alliance (公投護台灣聯盟) mobilized its supporters to encircle the Legislative Yuan. They attempted to blockade the entrance until the referendum law was amended. As Lin’s hunger strike dragged on, there was a threat to relinquish the principle of non-violence. Several brawls between pro-independence activists and lawmakers transpired.

Facing the unexpected surge of anti-nuclear activism, the KMT tried to hold its pro-nuclear stance. On the first day of Lin’s protest (April 22), Ma insisted the NPP-4 would be operational once it finished construction and safety inspections. On the third day (April 24), KMT lawmakers and the Executive Yuan decided to hold a referendum before inserting the fuel rod, which was basically the KMT’s promise a year ago. Finally, when it came to the sixth day (April 27), an emergency meeting between KMT local executives concluded to mothball the NPP-4’s first reactor and to stop constructing a second one. In other words, the KMT was forced to step back twice due to mounting pressures.

In the end, Lin Yi-hsiung halted his hunger protest apparently to avoid a likely violent turn of anti-nuclear protests. None of the anti-nuclear activists were satisfied with the KMT’s concession because they suspected the mothballed and nearly-finished reactors could be reactivated at any time. Yet, a partial stop still represented a significant victory for the anti-nuclear camp since it at least eliminated the imminent danger of a fully operational NPP-4 by the end of 2014.

In hindsight, the Sunflower Movement left an unanticipated impact on nuclear politics. That students and their supporters were able to sustain a 24-day political standoff with the authorities elevated the morale of civil society activists. The sense of efficacy on movement participation as well as anger towards the non-responsiveness on the part of the KMT government fueled the anti-nuclear mobilization in late April. Moreover, the proactive turn of the opposition party was largely a reaction to criticism about its weak performance and lack of leadership during the Sunflower occupation. Su’s high-profile meeting with KMT leaders as well as the legislative attempt to put the NPP-4 to a referendum aimed at regaining the lost political initiative.

While the long-term impact of the Sunflower Movement remains to be seen, its immediate influence on Taiwan’s nuclear politics was obvious. It helped to re-energize the post-Fukushima anti-nuclear activism that seemed to have lost steam. Arguably, Lin Yi-hsiung’s moral protest would not have been so resonant without the prior mobilization of civil society. And if the ill-fated NPP-4 would be eventually abandoned, what happened immediately after the Sunflower Movement would be seen as a critical turning point.

Ming-sho Ho (何明修) is Professor at the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University.