Written by J. Michael Cole.

In the absence of knowledge, fall back on conspiracies. This is what many foreign analysts and the Taiwanese government have done as they try to explain — and more importantly deal with — the activists’ occupation of the Legislative Yuan (LY), which is now on its eighteenth day.

According to the official narrative, the Sunflower Movement, which on the evening of March 18 began an unprecedented occupation of the legislature, came of out nowhere. After months of circus and the occasional skirmish on the legislative floor over the controversial Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) signed with China in June 2013, young activists acting as proxies of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) climbed over the fence, slipped by the police, and invaded the LY. The student leaders and academics who turned the legislative floor, and then the entire area surrounding the LY, into a sea of placards, banners and posters, were but the continuation of a sinister DPP policy whose sole intent was to prevent the passage of the trade agreement. Incapable of countering the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which enjoyed a majority of seats in the legislature, the DPP had resorted to undemocratic means and “mob role” to try to defeat government policy.

For many, the Sunflower Movement had been too spontaneous and organized to not have had a structure, prompting one KMT legislator to use the unfortunate example of al-Qaeda to describe the protesters. Hence the belief, held by government officials, the media and foreign observers, that the DPP had orchestrated the whole thing. Only the main opposition party, with its contacts and financial resources, could have achieved such a feat, which eventually led to the occupation, albeit brief, of the Executive Yuan (EY) next door.

Or so the story went.

But there’s a problem with this theory — it’s completely wrong. In fact, the entire DPP apparatus could be thrown behind bars tomorrow and this would have almost zero effect on the movement. Failing to understand this results in a failure to understand just how resilient and deep-rooted the movement is.

Taiwanese government officials and the local media should have known better, but for self-serving or ideological reasons, or simply because they were too lazy to see the signs, they chose to ignore the facts. For their part, foreign media and academics have been getting it wrong because they were either not paying attention or were poorly served by journalists and editors who neglected important developments on the island. Most were notorious for their lack of interest in, and curiosity about, the mobilization of civil society, whose efforts in the past 24 months had been snowballing.

For those of us who covered the constellation of activist movements that agitated during that period, the events of March 18 and the subsequent crisis were almost inevitable. The occupation was but the logical next step to mounting pressures and dissatisfaction with a government that on a plethora of issues had simply been ignoring democratic procedures and, in some instances, the law. A few among us, academics and journalists, sought to alert the rest of the world to this coming crisis, only to be told by foreign editors that domestic events on the island were too “inside baseball.” For reasons that ought to be explored in another essay, with a few rare exceptions American media and academics were particularly uninterested in what was going on in Taiwan. Their European counterparts were somewhat more curious, which perhaps reflects a stronger tradition of rebellion in the Old World, or an understanding that Taiwan’s history did not end when the island democratized in the late 1980s.

It’s little wonder then that when U.S. experts on Taiwan weighed in on the Sunflower crisis, they had no idea what they were talking about and were forced to rely on official information and fall back on conspiracy theories.

A prime example were comments by David Brown, a SAIS scholar and board member of the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT). Responding to an open letter by DPP Legislator Hsiao Bi-khim, Brown had very few positive things to say about the movement. “It is remarkable that the students reacted so quickly that same evening [March 18] to occupy the LY,” Brown told The Nelson Report on March 28. “The KMT has accused the DPP of instigating this action, an accusation that many believe. Unnamed DPP politicians were reportedly on the scene later that evening; and the party endorsed the action the following day, and then encouraged all its members to support the students’ illegal occupation.”

Brown continued: “So rather than have the DPP LY caucus responsible for continuing to block consideration of the [CS]STA, wasn’t it in the DPP’s interest to have students play that role? […] the DPP will go to whatever lengths are necessary to block the majority when their key interests are involved or when it suits the DPP’s election mobilization goals to exploit issues for political advantage.”

Unsurprisingly, Brown’s comments sparked very different reactions on both sides of the equation. Pro-government media in Taiwan splashed them as evidence of AIT, and by rebound U.S. government, disapproval of the student-led movement. For the other side, this was either proof that Brown was a paid agent of the KMT or that AIT had a secret agenda against the DPP. In reality, both sides were wrong. Brown was not speaking on behalf of AIT, as he is only a board member, nor was he a hatchet man on the Ma Ying-jeou government payroll. He’d simply involved himself into a very complex issue without fully understanding its context. And who could blame him, given that the media he likely relied upon for his information about Taiwan often couldn’t tell the difference between the Legislative Yuan and the Executive Yuan? However, sources tell me that Brown hadn’t set foot in Taiwan in about seven years, sadly a not unusual absence for academics that are considered experts on the island’s politics.

So there was no dark U.S. government plot to paint the Sunflower Movement in a bad light, though that isn’t to say that Washington doesn’t have its biases and preferences, as evidenced by the National Security Council’s rather crude leak to the Financial Times during a September 2011 visit by Tsai Ying-wen, the then DPP’s candidate in the following year’s presidential election, or inappropriate remarks by former AIT director Douglas Paal to pan-blue media during the same election. In fact, it could be argued that the underlying biases against the DPP in Washington help reinforce perceptions that tend to reinforce their views on complex issues such as the current occupation of the LY. Unfortunately for the Sunflower Movement and its supporters, this cognitive slant is a handicap, as they tend to be put in the same basket as the DPP.

A few days later, Alan Romberg of the Stimson Center also entered the fray with comments of his own, which were reproduced in The Nelson Report on April 1. While somewhat more receptive to the movement, Romberg nevertheless had issues with their actions.

“[O]ne should take the students’ concerns seriously and not simply dismiss them. The fact that students feel strongly enough to take a visible stance is commendable and an encouraging sign of the strength of Taiwan’s democracy,” he wrote. But then came the criticism: “At the same time, while, as an American I very much respect free speech, I am not in favor of activities that disrupt the government, either in the LY or the EY, and I regret any suggestion that the students have been encouraged to proceed along that course.”

Like Brown, Romberg appeared to be commenting on issues that he only partially understood. In his case, what was missing was the context in which the occupation had occurred, which one could only understand if he was aware of the 24 months that preceded the occupation. Throughout that period, every peaceful and democratic means had been tried by civil society, academics, NGOs and lawyers to deal with the problematic CSSTA and several other issues, from forced evictions to the mistreatment of army conscripts. For their rational and non-occupational efforts, they were rewarded with government contempt, farcical public hearings, police shields, court summons, and fines.

Again, unless Romberg was paying attention to Taiwan’s underground and Chinese-language media — where the only consistent coverage about Taiwan’s increasingly ebullient social forces was taking place — or was here physically to observe the clashes and disappointments, he could not have known that the next step, short of capitulation, had to be escalation. There were already signs that this was happening. On Jan. 25 a 41-year-old truck driver crashed his 35-tonne truck into the Presidential Office. Writing of the incident for the CPI Blog, this author concluded by saying, “[W]hile walls can be erected to ensure better protection [at the Presidential Office], they will do absolutely nothing to resolve the widening chasm between those in power and the growing number of ordinary Taiwanese who have lost faith in the ability of their government to rule their country.” This was a little less than two months prior to the occupation of the LY.

The executive and the legislative branches were no longer working; the mechanism of democratic governance was failing the public who had entrusted officials with its operations. This included the very DPP that is alleged to have masterminded the student occupation, which in reality could not have cared less for the efforts of civil society in recent years. The mishandling of the CSSTA and the fears that the pact awakened among politically aware young Taiwanese was the spark that set the prairie on fire. To outsiders who hadn’t been paying attention, it looked like a spontaneous eruption of madness by students who had nothing better to do than to interrupt the operations of government. In reality, their actions were a wake-up call long in the making, following many screams that were simply ignored by the world, including researchers who make Taiwan their expertise, and media that were failing to connect the dots for them, as this author wrote in his parting shot from the Taipei Times in November 2013.

Now their call has been heard, and it is important that the international community fully understand what it is and where it comes from. Facile conspiracy theories and the lazy regurgitation of state propaganda will not do and are the surest way to ensure that the problem won’t go away. It’s time for Taiwan experts and international media to do their homework again.

J Michael Cole is a Taipei-based analyst and writer. His personal blog is here and he tweets @jmichaelcole1. Michael is a CPI blog Regular Contributor and Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute. Image by J. Michael Cole.


  1. The author spends the entire first half of the article saying that other commentators failed to notice “what was going on” in Taiwan, then in a brief sentence states:

    “Again, unless Romberg was paying attention to Taiwan’s underground and Chinese-language media — where the only consistent coverage about Taiwan’s increasingly ebullient social forces was taking place — or was here physically to observe the clashes and disappointments, he could not have known that the next step, short of capitulation, had to be escalation.”

    No details are provided, only an example of a truck driver driving into the Presidential Office. The remainder of the article fails to address or elaborate in detail on what these clashes and disappointments were and presupposes that the readers will accept his claims at face value. There is also no comprehensive dissection of the introductory theory about political orchestration of the initial occupation of the LY other than another blanket statement that “it is completely wrong.”

    I read the author’s blog and it is a great source of information for my learning about Taiwanese politics, but this article, whilst no doubt required a lot of heart and effort to write, unfortunately falls short of being satisfactory in providing answers.

    1. Dear Chi Hsu: Point taken. This article was already about 2,000 words long. I indeed assumed a certain amount of knowledge about the crisis and its antecedents on the part of the reader. As I have written extensively about those elsewhere, I didn’t see the need, nor did I have the space, to go into such details again.

  2. Perhaps the concern over what someone from the Stimson Centre says or someone from the AIT says is overblown. If their pronouncements are the source of information for “decision-makers” in Washington, then those decision-makers are simply not doing their jobs properly. If that is the case, then why worry what they will decide anyway – if they can’t be arsed to keep an eye on Taiwan in the first place, then there would seem little reason to think they’d take Taiwanese interests seriously.

  3. “‘Narratives’ that denounce and disapprove of people…are spreading ominously in our society. The new narratives that ought to challenge them have yet to become free of the old narratives that still remain within them. ”

    – Genichiro Takahashi, professor of Japanese literature, Meiji Gakuin University (quoted in Asahi Shimbin 4/5/2014)

  4. I very much appreciate all of the work you do here, and usually agree with everything you write. I am troubled however, about the assessment of David Brown’s response to the open letter written by DPP Congresswoman 蕭美琴. Mr. Brown’s face was spattered all over the local newspapers prominently. His opinion was put on the news headline tickers of most of the KMT friendly media. I have a hard time believing that this was not a concerted effort to discredit the movement. I have a very hard time believing that an experienced foreign service officer would write such a letter with no proviso as to whom it may be shared with. I have yet to see Mr. Brown put forth a statement regretting that he made such ill-informed statements either. I think he, like many foreigners of a certain age, like to think that “those people” in Taiwan wouldn’t know any better. I specifically asked the AIT if he was paid, and that as a Board member he should be responsible enough to say he wasn’t. Letters to third parties don’t accidently show up in almost every local newspaper, especially with a person’s picture next to it. Someone puts them there. You might be kind enough to believe he didn’t know what he was doing, but I’m not buying it one bit.

  5. I agree with much of what the author contributes here. But, as an American, I can also, I think, humbly add a little more.

    This is not merely an issue of reporting. It is a mindset. The American “fireman”–I don’t use the term “policeman” because policemen have numerous jobs beyond quelling disturbances–is just that: his mindset is, if he isn’t rescuing kittens from trees, looking for smoke. For the average American, who can’t seem to get that Taiwan is not Thailand, Taiwan is barely worth a blip. For the American who knows Taiwan, Taiwan is much more than that, but we are a very small minority; and if one is not a Taiwanese-American, one is merely being a Hemingway (and deserves castigation for it) in joining Taiwan’s fight.

    The American mindset for those who have studied Taiwan and entered politics is quite simple: the issue whether Taiwan and China drag the United States into a shooting war. The Chinese are winning the battle for many reasons, not the least of which are a) using American fear to keep the “Taiwan dog” on a leash as it did in the second George W. Bush administration, and b) the pro-China president of Taiwan, Ma-Ying-jeou, as the example of “warming relations.” When was the last time that a relatively high-profile book was published in the United States that dealt with Taiwan as Taiwan and not as part of a cross-Strait problem? Books are written for reasons–especially by those who have the ear of certain American political groups. This should be indicative.

    Simply put, for the American “fireman,” Taiwan is just one puff of smoke amid a whole world of smoke puffs, some of them smoldering, and some of them raging infernos. Everything having to do with Taiwan is viewed through this lens. I highly doubt the American government asks much of AIT in the first place–unless anything the Taiwan government does upsets China. Passports, visas, other daily routines aside, I seriously doubt the U.S. government asks AIT officials to go out and poke around. They ask for daily briefs and skim them for “China’s reaction to” such and such a statement, such and such a policy.

    One person stated to me the other day (a local) and another today (a foreigner) that “AIT sucks”–one in Mandarin (你們那個AIT很爛,爛到不行), one in English. I replied to both: No, AIT doesn’t suck. The U.S. government does. It doesn’t want diplomats and people who understand the situation on the ground; it wants firemen.

      1. Michael: I can’t respond at your blog, so I will here. It’s a piece pretty much in line with my own thinking on the implied subject country. Glad you addressed that as well. Cheers.

  6. As a Taiwanese student study U.S. history and some U.S. foreign relationship, I can see why Taiwan is not particularly attractive to the U.S. audiences. First, Taiwan doesn’t have natural resources, like Central Asia. There is no reason for U.S. to pay attention to the Island in the long term. In terms of military value, since Chinese held so many U.S. bonds. American need to worry about their financial crisis more than anything else and there is no U.S. military base on the Island. There is no reason for U.S. military intelligences to pay attention to Taiwan, either. For U.S. civilians, Taiwan is not a Third World country. Taiwan have fairly good social welfare, health care system, and strong local charity groups. There is no room for Western Charity to set their foot in Taiwan or lobbying for Taiwan. Finally, for U.S. Chinese scholars, Taiwan is too Westernized. It doesn’t serve the role of criticizing U.S. imperialism. In other words, Taiwan don’t have academic value.

  7. On the particular charge which Cole rebuffs here – that the Sunflower protests are a proxy of the DPP – there is a further point to be answered, which is that however much at arm’s length the students have kept the DPP for tactical reasons, there is nevertheless an obvious ideological affinity between them. Who among the DPP’s leaders since 2000 would not have redrawn Taiwan’s constitutional system along the lines proposed by Lin Fei Fan recently, if only they could have pulled it off? Surely none.

    What worries me is the ideological terms of the broader Sunflower movement and what these signify.

    Far too often the salient point of protest against the government’s various transgressions over the past four years has not been that these transgressions involved violations of property rights, though that is an aspect common to all of them, but that these transgressions were carried out by the government at the behest of “the rich”, or of “the corporations”, or of “Chinese interests”. That they were all violations of the first principle of capitalism, private property, has been neglected.

    To take just one particular case (the Dapu case in Miaoli last year), which was as obvious a case of government theft of private property one could find, the need to protest was presented as a matter of “social justice” rather than just plain justice, qua a defence of property rights. Consequentially, the protest leaders did not call for the Land Expropriation Act to be repealed, but only for it to be amended. For all their talk of human “rights” it seems that, when push comes to shove, they really just think that rights can be replaced with politically contingent permissions. So much for defending the poor.

    In sum, I am as concerned with what the Sunflower protesters are for as what they are against. Consider, for instance, the obvious cravings of this individual.

  8. In years to come, this Formosan youth uprising will be construed as the watershed event that prevented a derelict Formosa Maru drifting further west in the fog of ambiguity towards the treacherous shoals of the Chinese eastern seaboard. At dawn, all sunflowers face the rising sun.

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