Written by J. Michael Cole.

Aside from shedding light on a poorly crafted and potentially harmful services trade pact with China, Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement has performed an extraordinary, if under-appreciated, service to the country by sparking a necessary societal debate on the meaning of democracy.

Ironically, the great majority of the Sunflowers’ detractors, both in the West and here in Asia, have used “democracy” and “rule of law” as weapons with which to discredit the activists’ nearly three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan. While conceding the possibility that the movement’s ideals might have been laudable, the critics often expressed strong disagreement with the “illegal” techniques adopted to pressure the government.

Many have lambasted the movement for acting outside the parameters of democracy and laws and argued that the activists should instead have engaged in legal protests outside government buildings. As the Ministry of Justice mulls severe punishments for the student leadership, with charges that could result in as much as seven years’ imprisonment, a number of critics — including people who should know better — have come out saying that young leaders like Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting must face prison for their acts.

The more rigid among them opined that Taiwanese deserved their lot and that if they are unhappy with current state of things, they should use democratic retribution in the next elections to punish the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) for its bad behavior.

The arguments above only make sense if one limits himself to the minimalist definition, or to what Larry Diamond refers to as a “thin” conception, of democracy (The Spirit of Democracy, p. 21). That definition limits the scope to the holding of regular “free and fair” elections, and says little about conduct in between elections. Under that logic, which has been espoused by a good number of those who disagree with the Sunflower Movement, society has little choice but to countenance bad governance between elections, and the disgruntled polity must wait until the next round of elections to punish the party in power.

Others disagree with that definition and seek to expand the nature of democracy to what is sometimes referred to as “positive freedom,” which Jonathan Schell defines as “the capacity to participate in political life, but such acts as voting, demonstrating, even rebelling against the government” (The Unconquerable World, p. 238).

Proponents of “positive freedom” would evidently never argue that rebellion is a desirable action. But its inclusion in their enlarged definition of allowable democratic expression makes accommodations for extreme acts under extreme circumstances.

Detractors would counter that extreme action in the current context is unwarranted, as Taiwan is a democracy and has the rule of law. Oftentimes, however, the awareness of the state of affairs in Taiwan among those individuals is rather superficial. In their view, Taiwan became a liberal democracy in the late 1980s or in 1996, when the nation held its first free presidential election, and since then its status has been pretty much settled. Such a view echoes the by-now discredited notion that democracy was the apex of political systems and that with its achievement one had reached the “end of history.”

Sadly, Taiwan’s history did not end in the 1990s. In fact, its system remains seriously handicapped and has retained some unsavory elements — laws and practices — of Taiwan’s authoritarian past. Furthermore, as with several other young democracies that emerged towards the end of the Cold War, various developments have raised concerns about the democratic health of those states. Writing about a downturn in the 1990s, Diamond lamented the “mix of distressed governance [which included] abusive police forces, domineering local oligarchies, incompetent or indifferent state bureaucracies, corrupt and inaccessible judiciaries, and venal, ruling elites contemptuous of the rule of law and accountable to no one but themselves” (Spirit, p. 292).

For many of the activists who have spent the past twenty days inside the legislature, the current administration seems to fit many, of not all, of the characteristics of Diamond’s distressed governance. Diamond continues, “There were elections, but they were contests between corrupt, clientelistic parties that served popular interests only in name.”

In many ways, the structure of the Taiwanese government and its strong emphasis on the law to counter dissent discredits its claims to being democratic. Sure, Taiwan’s citizens have the right to vote for presidential candidates and political parties and go through the motions of a democratic system, but once a new administration steps in, there is little empowerment to keep the government accountable, which are tools that are to be found in Diamond’s definition of “thick” democracy. Chief among them are “Institutional checks on the power of elected office, by an independent legislature, court system, and other autonomous agencies” and “Real pluralism in sources of information and forms of organization independent of the state; and thus, a vibrant ‘civil society.’”

Unfortunately, most of those elements have suffered under the Ma Ying-jeou administration, which has oftentimes smothered internal dissent, intervened in the judiciary, and for the most part ignored input from civil society — including input on the agreement at the heart of the current crisis, the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA). For all intents and purposes, the Taiwanese government has drifted towards what Diamond terms a competitive authoritarian regime, little more than an empty shell.

It is because of that refusal to implement a “thick” version of democracy by the ruling authorities that Chen, Lin, and several thousand members of the Sunflower Movement decided to take action and utilize their right to rebellion — rebellion which, we must emphasize, has been peaceful and that never sought to overthrow the government or undo Taiwan’s political system. Chen, Lin, and thousands of others realized over the past two years that Taipei had no intention of moving beyond the “thin” version of democracy. Every peaceful means was adopted and exhausted during that period; hundreds of rallies, lectures and protests were held; dozens of failed attempts were made to access public hearings organized by the government. In almost every instance, the authorities ignored social groups and retaliated with police shields, intimidation, and in incommensurate fashion, the courts. Land was seized by the government, homes were demolished, the environment was damaged, elderly laid-off factory workers were sued, ordinary citizens were beaten by police or private security firms, Aboriginal land was stolen, historical buildings were threatened with destruction, soldiers were abused to death, the gap between rich and poor widened, men and women died under mysterious circumstances and the autopsies were never made public, while corrupt individuals or wanted criminals were seemingly untouchable (including Chinese officials who broke the law while visiting Taiwan). The list goes on. I and several others have documented almost every single one of them, but the world has chosen not to pay attention.

Many of the students, academics and their supporters inside the legislature today are graduates of those protests. The government’s intransigence convinced them that abiding by narrow democratic rules — the “thin” definition espoused by the Ma administration and many of the movement’s critics — no longer worked and would likely spell disaster for their country, especially as Taipei became increasingly close to, and subject to pressure from, the authoritarian regime in China.

Taiwan’s democracy has become an empty shell, an illusion used and abused by both the powers that be and those who have no compunction in seeing the democratic miracle slowly descend into soft authoritarianism. Of course Taipei can respond with the law and put the leadership behind bars for years, with strong support from a number of people in Taiwan and abroad. After all, they did break the law, as have several other dissidents worldwide, people including Liu Xiaobo. But the government has broken its contract with society, and consequently the law has become an instrument of repression. As such, if Chen, Lin and others end up in jail, they will not be ordinary criminals. They will be prisoners of conscience.

J Michael Cole is a Taipei-based analyst and writer. Michael is a CPI blog Regular Contributor and Non-Resident Senior Fellow in the China Policy Institute. Image by J. Michael Cole.


  1. This is probably the best work connected to democratic theory done of the Sunflower Movement in English thus far, Michael. Also nice to see someone in English media not harping on the cross-Strait issue when writing on the Movement. If only the folks at Banyan and Foreign Policy would give this form of insight, which is so desperately needs.

  2. Excellent article, excellent work!

    If periodic election based “thin democracy” were to be held as universal truth, then, Vladimir Putin would be a democrat and the current West-wide loud scold of him as “authoritarian ruler” or even “dictator” would be false. As well, the Maidan putsch would have been illegal. Let’s also not forget that Hitler was democratically elected.

    Putin has a never-died KGB apparatus working for him just as Ma Ying-Jeou has a never-died (KMT mainlander-controlled) secret police apparatus working for him.

    People often underestimate, if not ignore, the immense network of the (KMT mainlander-controlled) secret police machinery that was originally created by Chiang Ching-Kuo in China; it was meant to control the whole of China and was eventually moved to Taiwan to control a much smaller country. Such a weight on Taiwan is immensely huge and has not been easy to the Taiwanese and Taiwan’s bumpy democratic evolvement.

    The accidental (i.e. KMT-split caused) loss of power by KMT to DPP in 2000 was so painful to the KMT that it has made them absolutely determined to never lose their power again, at all cost.

    I don’t expect the KMT machinery to be lenient to the Sunflower student leaders. This is war to KMT, even more so to China. Both will not allow new shoots of “Taiwaneseness” to bud. The stake is simply too high to both KMT and to China.

    The current “trouble”-shy US mainstream is likely standing by the side of the alliance of KMT and China and wishes the Sunflowers would just go away.

  3. Regarding that Jonathan Schell “definition” of positive freedom… “…the capacity to participate in political life, but [sic] such acts as voting, demonstrating, even rebelling against the government…”, … it seems much more like one implication drawn from a definition, rather than a definition itself.

    A rough heuristic for the distinction between positive and negative freedom is “freedom to” and “freedom from”. Whilst negative freedom refers to the absence of constraints (e.g. government coercion) on individual agency, positive freedom refers to opportunities for that agency to be expressed. So the “capacity to participate in political life” would be merely one form in which individual agency could be expressed.

    The trouble with that is that all politics can be viewed through Lenin’s “who, whom?” lens – i.e. who is acting for or against whom? Since politics is all about coercion, the logical consequence of expressing one’s positive freedom through politics is an infraction of someone else’s negative freedom. Electoral democracy, coupled with vast taxation, regulatory, and licensing powers is all about pervasive, systematic coercion. This is why I am less interested in what the sunflower movement are against, but what they are for and what they will be for ten or fifteen years from now. Who will they be willing to use political power against when it is their turn to hold office? If the answer remains as crude as “the rich”, or “the 1%” or some slightly more literate expression, then my worries will be confirmed.

    1. Mike: Good to see you commenting here. I have only one criticism to add, although I must stress that I read this article positively considering the utter trash I’ve been reading in other Western media. I would have shied away from mentioning the widening rich-poor gap in Taiwan here for several reasons, and not because it is untrue. One of the reasons–and this is purely tactical; you’ll forgive me of it, as I hope JM Cole will–is simply because it will be exploited by folks at Banyan, Forbes, and Foreign Policy, among others, as implying that all the protesters are anti-free trade, which simply isn’t true. Again, this is merely a tactical omission done merely to avoid the constant unjustified hammering away at the protesters for their “anti-free trade” leanings, which simply isn’t true. Of course some do dislike free trade (as I’ve found in my interviews and discussions with a few protesters), but to throw the baby out with the bathwater here, considering what these folks are up against, is disingenuous at best. I find myself having to support these protesters simply because I find the greatest threat to their liberties not due to seeking positive freedoms but due to the reality that Taiwan’s “liberal democratic” system is weak at best and completely phony at worst. I have to be sympathetic towards them here even if I don’t agree 100% with any single member. It’s quite difficult to be in 100% agreement on every single matter with any individual; I’ve yet to accomplish it.

      1. Nate,

        Thanks. I don’t see that there is any need for me to express “support” or “disapproval”. I just say what I think and I have no interest in what people at FP or elsewhere say. Sorry.

        I agree that Taiwan’s constitutional system is, as you say, “weak”. That being the case, it surely ought to be strengthened. One way in which I think that might be tried is a general strategy of depoliticization, i.e. of repealing the most egregious political powers, such as the Land Theft Act and of demanding an end to political control over education.

        Lin Fei-fan has elicited massive public support by clearly articulating opposition to the CSSTA. Yet he then called for a national convention on constitutional reform, which is not a clear articulation of opposition, but rather a very general, open-ended question with no obvious end-point to aim for. I doubt this call will meet with anything like the same popular appeal his opposition to the CSSTA did. That being so, I think Lin Fei-fan’s successors might be better off, at some more opportune point in the future, clearly articulating a demand for an end to political control over education, or for the repeal of the Land Theft Act, and so on…

        Such demands are specific, easily understood, well-poised to capture public discontent with whichever government holds power, and would dovetail well into an overall strategy of depoliticization. The removal of powers from the central government might also serve as a non-military deterrent to Chinese annexation simply in view of the fact that it would raise the costs of such annexation considerably.

  4. If I may be permitted the indulgence of a second successive comment…

    Another thing I noticed on listening to your radio interview the other day, and something made salient by commentary elsewhere (“China looting Taiwan” and other hyperbolic claims), is the conflation of two separate points regarding trade in services with China.

    First, there is a possible indirect threat against Taiwan’s current freedoms, e.g through the possibility of, as you said, self-censorship were the Chinese to acquire controlling stakes in Taiwan’s media industry. However, I would have thought that control of ISPs would be the key threat, not TV channels and newspapers. There may also be some devil-in-the-detail arrangements elsewhere in the CSSTA that I am as yet unaware of.

    Second, there is the issue of competition and economic protectionism regarding the outsourcing of certain industry functions to China. The KMT people may have accused both the Sunflower movement and the DPP of being anti-trade, when in fact they are in qualified favour of trade with China. Yet both parties have historically supported some form of protectionist policy.

    The two issues seem to me to be too often conflated. For instance, even if the first threat were non-existent and there was only the “threat” of competition, certain people would still be talking about “China looting Taiwan” anyway. The distinction between the two issues, and possible connections between them, ought to rendered in clearer focus.

  5. Aren’t these narrow interpretations and reactions part and parcel of the entrenched ideology of the New Life Movement? Aren’t Rule of Law and Democracy just ciphers for the authoritarian utopia dreamed up by Mr.and Mrs. Chiang kai-shek which Ma and his organization perpetuate? The New Life Movement’s ideals always failed to take into account the actual problems of the people.

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