Written by Frank Cheng-shan Liu.

The “sunflower” student movement earlier this year aroused island-wide feelings about Taiwan’s political future. For some observers, it is the most important student movement since the late 1980s. However, the movement did not last long. Why didn’t this student-based “movement” turn out to be a society-wide movement as it appeared to be in the beginning? I looked back at a representative telephone survey collected before the movement and here I attempt to provide some explanations based on the findings.

A Few days before writing this essay, I found that my preliminary conclusions were generally confirmed by responses from one of my students who was active in the movement, whom I have not seen since last August. When I asked her about her experiences regarding the movement, she said, “What? Professor, how come you still think about it and mention it? It is gone. I felt frustrated from the process [because of the perceived lack of meaning and leadership to sustain the movement] and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

I did not ask her more about these negative feelings and could not interview all of my students who were active participants between March 18 and April 9. However, given what I have observed from the available data, I believe that her feeling should be considered fairly representative: Most of active students are expected to think and feel in a similar way. From my personal perspective, the movement won’t last when the debates about the core issue of the government’s Mainland China policy disappears from the agenda (or is responded to by political party leaders). Moreover, interest in keeping the movement going will weaken when students are under pressure from other generations, including their parents, who in general did not see the protest as salient, and when issues used to stimulate generations’ negative imagination about Mainland China are not supplied.

My data analysis was based on two datasets. One was collected between January 23 and February 4, 2013 (N=1,078) and the other was collected from January 10 to 24, 2014 (N=1,072). The response rates of the two surveys were 21.4 and 23.9 per cent, respectively, following AAPOR response rate formula 2. In both datasets, discrete generations in Taiwan are defined as follows:

  • The first generation was born before 1931, entering their formative years before 1949 and witnessing severe social conflicts between ethnic groups.
  • The second generation was born between 1932 and 1953. They entered their formative years between 1949 and 1971 and witnessed the diplomatic difficulties the ROC experienced.
  • The third generation was born between 1954 and 1968 and entered their formative years between 1972 and 1986 allowing them to witness Taiwan’s economic boom.
  • The fourth generation was born between 1969 and 1978. They entered their formative years between 1986 and 1996 and witnessed the era of student social movements for Legislative Yuan reform and the establishment of the DPP.
  • The fifth generation was born between 1979 and 1988. They entered their formative years between 1997 and 2006 and witnessed the missile crisis in 1996, in addition to experiencing the transfer of power from the KMT to the DPP in 2000.
  • The sixth generation, born after 1989, entered their formative years after 2007 and witnessed the transfer of power from DPP to KMT in 2008 and the debates and signing of the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between 2010 and 2013.

The following findings are based on a series of logistic regression analyses, where the third generation is taken as the base of comparison.

First, the Sunflower generation (the sixth generation) is more likely than the third generation to identify themselves as citizens of either “Taiwan” or the “Republic of China”. This implies the emergence of new country identification that is less relevant to “China.” This also implies that for the sixth generation, Republic of China is replaceable and does not need to be the only name for their country.

Second, the second and the fifth generations, compared to the third generation, are likely to support the idea of creating a new country. This result challenges conventional wisdom that senior generations in general are more attached to the greater China concept. It implies that younger generations are likely to be Taiwan nationalists and that the Sunflower movement can be understood and tolerated, if not supported, by at least two generations of Taiwanese voters that have evolved to be more Taiwan-centric in terms of country identification.

Thirdly, I found in the data that Taiwanese people who think Taiwan’s democratic system is superior to Mainland China’s political system are likely to be those who have adopted “Taiwan” as the name for the country, who have a clear perception of Taiwan’s territory (as not including Mainland China), and who have a higher education level. The sixth generation feels less prejudice than the third generation does, which means they are less confident about Taiwan’s democracy. This helps to explain why the Sunflower generation is less sure about the effectiveness of their movement as a performance of democracy. I suspect that their views about the “318” movement won’t be as positive and enduring as those who participated in the White Lily movement in 1990 (third and the fourth generations).

Fourthly, overall, generations younger than 45, compared to the third generation, have started to form new opinions regarding Taiwan’s future. The fourth generation and younger have started to feel hostile toward Mainland China; the fifth generation and younger have rejected the concept of the Mainland Chinese “compatriots” (dalu tongbao); and the sixth generation distinguishes Hong Kong from the Mainland China in terms of national identity, i.e., Hong Kong people are not Chinese people.

Given these findings, I see that the sixth generation is a unique one, confident in saying “No” to Mainland China but not in the functionality of Taiwan’s democracy in terms of solving their concerns about Taiwan’s political future and bringing them economic hope. This conflict characterizes the “318” movement, which was primarily composed of the sixth generation of voters. This movement was “dissolved” without bloodier action, retaliation or strikes because the other generations (such as the second and the fifth) have grown sympathetic to the Taiwan independence movement and are able to tolerate this symbolic movement that is targeting the Mainland China. In effect, sentiment and sympathy without a strong purpose and clear policy goal of pursuing justice won’t last long. The Sunflower movement that was initiated by issue mobilization is one such example.

Frank Liu is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Political Science, National Sun Yat-Sen University.