Sunday afternoon March 30th 2014: An unprecedented show of people power in Taiwan as a huge throng dressed in black and brandishing sunflowers descended on the streets of the capital Taipei chanting “withdraw the trade deal”. Taiwanese media put the figure at between 350,000 and 500,000 demonstrators, who spanned all ages from young families, to students, to the elderly and all of Taiwan’s ethnic groups were represented. The protesters held sunflowers aloft to show they were part of what has been dubbed the Sunflower Movement, many also brought handmade signs and banners spelling out the reasons for their discontent – “Don’t Sell Our Country”, “Save Democracy”, “Down With The Black Box Agreement”.
Although they were united against their KMT president and his handling of a controversial trade pact with China, this was not the normal party politics of Taiwan. They were not there to support the opposition DPP party, this was something new. It had all started 12 days before when a group of student activists entered and occupied the parliament, known as the Legislative Yuan. The young activists said that signing the Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement with China would harm Taiwan’s democracy and criticised their president’s resolve to pass the trade deal without bipartisan discussion and public deliberation. They filled the Legislative Yuan with banners and slogans spelling out their message. News of this audacious protest spread quickly over social media and more and more young people joined in the occupation of the parliament and the surrounding area. The students who had initially entered the Legislative Yuan say they didn’t expect to last the night before being forced out by security. However after barricading the door with chairs, they did in fact manage to remain. They are still there.
As the days passed, protests spread and grew, not just in Taipei but all around the country. Taiwan’s KMT government-sponsored media criticised the students for their so called violent and improper actions or tried to pretend it was not happening, but there was no putting the genie back in the bottle. Other Taiwanese media devoted near 24 hour coverage to the sunflower movement and Taiwan’s social media exploded with Facebook discussions, tweets and posts on the ever-popular Taiwanese bulletin board service PTT. Despite this, Taiwan’s president remained aloof and hidden, refusing to confront the issue. Frustrated by President Ma’s reaction, a group of students decided to escalate the protests further by occupying the cabinet, known as the Executive Yuan. This time the government’s reaction turned nasty.
At 4AM Monday 24th of March, riot police were ordered to forcibly remove the students from the Executive Yuan. The students had been holding a sit-in protest, none were armed, they were simply refusing to leave. Nevertheless, the riot police were authorised to employ water cannon and some waded in violently with batons, bloodying and badly injuring some of the young people. Again, the KMT tried to cover it up attempting to block media from witnessing the goings on and suggesting via their media channels that the police had used little more than forceful words to remove the protestors, but again they had underestimated the power of social media and the prevalence of video and media capturing devices.
Photos of bleeding students and aggressive riot policeman spread around social media like wildfire. Taiwanese media repeatedly broadcast a video of a riot policeman clearly captured striking a student hard in the face with his baton; the victim of the assault was lying on the ground at the time, unarmed and defenseless. Media also repeated a particularly unnerving clip of a young man weeping in agony and clutching his face after his beating. This turn of events backfired on the KMT, provoking public anger and disgust and bolstering support for the students who remained in the Legislative Yuan. The sunflower movement had now spread from a small group of ardent student activists to people of all ages and walks of life around the country. The movement was also commanding respect for its non-violent methods and conscientious approach. Student leaders Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting were now appearing on news media often, displaying excellent oratory skills and giving clear and passionate addresses despite lacking sleep and still camping out in the Legislative Yuan. In contrast, President Ma with all his resources, floundered. Thus, when Lin and Chen called for a rally in Taipei, hundreds of thousands from around the nation answered.
They called the rally the 4AM protest, the theme would be black, echoing Facebook users all over Taiwan who had been ‘turning the lights out’ meaning giving themselves a pure black Facebook profile to show how dark and desperate they thought their country had become. The massive protest was amazingly well-mannered, with young volunteers controlling crowds and organising litter pick up. At the same time, the feeling of exasperation and concern among the demonstrators was palpable. Such a massive outpouring of emotion and anger on a purely trade related issue would be very unusual, clearly something deeper was at stake. The issue is that the CSSTA is an agreement between Taiwan and communist China, their powerful and intimidating neighbours who sit uneasily just across the Taiwan Strait from them. China’s communist rulers have made a point for many years of letting the Taiwanese know that they plan to take over their island nation one way or another and have a barrage of missiles trained on them; they call this ‘reunification’, presumably as it sounds more palatable than invasion.
It is often seen in media reports that ‘Taiwan and China split in a civil war’; however, this inaccurate. Taiwan has never been part of the communist-run People’s Republic of China. Formosa, as it was previously called, was purportedly part of the Manchu Qing Dynasty, however during the Manchu’s dynastic rule they never had total jurisdiction over the island’s people, who were originally Austronesian aboriginal peoples. The Qing Dynasty ceded what part of Formosa they did control to Japan in 1895. Japan also faced opposition from the indigenous inhabitants, but did eventually control the whole island and it became a Japanese colony for 50 years, ending when Japan was defeated in World War II and was forced to renounce its territories. Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Chinese nationalists fled to Taiwan in 1949 after being driven out of China by Mao Zedong’s communists and declared Taiwan the Republic of China. They claimed they would return and defeat the communists one day, but instead they remained in Taiwan. After decades of being a one-party state and under martial law, Taiwan eventually achieved democracy in the early 1990’s. Thus, the Chinese Communist Party’s goal of ‘reunification’ by taking Taiwan, can be seen as really being about finally prevailing over their enemy the nationalists and growing their empire. Since Taiwan and the PRC have never been unified the concept of reunification is impossible and seizing Taiwan, militarily or otherwise, would be an invasion of another sovereign state.
Despite the hardline rhetoric though, it remains unlikely Beijing would sanction a military invasion of Taiwan now, especially since at least in theory, America would support Taiwan in such an event. It is more likely that China’s communist strategy-makers favour diplomatic coercion and economic takeover as a means to take control. It is not surprising, therefore, that many consider that any trade deals signed between Taiwan and China should be scrutinized carefully in case they present an economic means by which China can make good on their promise to take Taiwan. Somewhat ironically, the Communist Party of China has been able to woo the KMT nationalists in recent years as the Kuomintang also have their own ‘reunification’ myth, albeit under the complete opposite circumstances of it being them who vanquishes their foes, the communists, and ‘retakes’ China.
Taiwan’s people are quite naturally fearful of falling under the jurisdiction or influence of a powerful autocratic nation that is well known for human rights abuses. Taiwan’s own democracy was hard won and they do not intend to return to a state of tyranny and oppression. As such, the apparent rush President Ma was in to ratify the CSSTA without discussion is seen as proof that it is an under the table agreement, by which a handful of the rich and powerful on both sides stand to gain, but Taiwan’s national integrity and democracy is sold off. If the KMT’s increasingly autocratic style is reminiscent of the past, then the Sunflower Movement may hint at the future of Taiwan’s politics and there are some positive signs; that is, if the island nations democracy can survive at all.