Written by Ming-Yeh T. Rawnsley.

A quarter of century has passed since the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989. Western media often portrayed the 1989 protest as a pro-democracy movement and it was eventually framed in a ‘man versus tank’ Cold War ideology with an ‘end of history’ type rhetoric. While democratisation was an important aspiration for students and intellectuals who were involved in the Tiananmen protest, a central component of the campaign for Chinese workers and other urban dwellers was the demand for social equality and justice (Wang 2003: 62).

On the surface, the values of democracy, freedom and social security all seem interconnected in the context of the neoliberal expansion of marketisation and commercialisation. However upon closer examination, Chinese society was highly uneven and serious divisions existed within the movement as the increasingly aggressive pursuit of market economy since the 1980s intensified the problems of political corruption, social inequality and cultural contradictions. As Yuezhi Zhao (forthcoming) has noted:

social struggles exploded in more diffused and variegated forms throughout Chinese society, with those at the lower social strata emerging as the main protagonists. […] While western liberal democracy-inspired intellectuals continued to champion the end of one-party rule and the installation of electoral politics, it was the ordinary people’s struggles for the necessities of daily life and their inner sense of justice, including the very meaning of life — be it the laid-off workers’ protest against unfair compensations in the illegal privatisation of state-owned enterprises, migrant workers’ demand for unpaid salaries, farmers’ protest against the unauthorised seizure of lands, or the ordinary Falun Gong practitioners quest for health, community and meaning in life.

For this reason, although brutal state oppression was the direct cause of the demise of activism in 1989, Wang Hui believed that  ‘the indirect cause lay in the movement’s own inability to bridge the gap between its demands for political democracy and the demands for social equality that had been its mobilising force’ (Wang 2003: 64).

There are some similarities and many differences between the Tiananmen protest of 1989 and Taiwan’s Sunflower movement of 2014. The major similarity lies in the multiplicity of both movements: various social forces pursuing different political and social agendas came under one overarching theme — democratisation — and culminated in a massive student-led civic movement which could not be easily ignored by their respective authorities. As the movements consisted of a wide range of social groups and their various issues, it is inevitable that the opposing camps would attempt to present a counter argument against the activists’ demands and to divide their opponents. On the other hand, different stakeholders within the movements also endeavoured to venture competing (and sometimes self-conflicting or even contradictory) narratives to cultivate social support for their individual causes.

Thus each time I witnessed various political and social actors trying to redefine the appeals of the Sunflower movement during the occupation of the Legislative Yuan between 18 March and 10 April 2014, I was worried that the movement might be hijacked unwittingly or lose its focus along the way. Nevertheless, the fact that the Sunflower movement was able to maintain its key platform throughout, so its opposition to the ‘black box Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement’ (反黑箱服貿) has highlighted not only the fundamental disparity between the socio-political environments in which the Tiananmen and Sunflower movements were situated, but also the differences in how democratisation in China and Taiwan is framed.

As Yuezhi Zhao (forthcoming) has pointed out, whether it was the notion of socialist democracy as expressed by Democracy Wall activists, the social equality and justice dimension of the 1989 movement, or the complex articulations of the social and cultural in the Falun Gong movement, the social dimension of democracy has always been there in China; it was not, and thus should not be framed as a demand for the premature importation of western-inspired notions of democracy.

In comparison, Taiwan has been a democracy since martial law was lifted in 1987 and the introduction of constitutional reforms in 1990. However, democratisation is an endless process. The unresolved questions of the island’s ‘first wave’ of democratisation have left many thorny issues yet to be dealt with. For instance, where are the checks and balances to presidential power in Taiwan’s current political system? How can the capacity and quality of the legislature be strengthened? How can the people be empowered to supervise politicians more satisfactorily than simply casting a vote periodically? The issue at the core of the Sunflower movement, opposition to the black box Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement, foregrounds several structural challenges facing Taiwan: (1) How can the Taiwanese government be entrusted to conduct trade negotiations with Beijing in a more transparent and productive manner when such negotiations may have profound economic, social and political consequences for the people on Taiwan? (2) What mechanisms can enhance accountability, quality and efficiency of political debates? (3) How can the concerns of the civil society be properly addressed and be provided a space for engagement with the process without being misrepresented in the overly simplistic ‘independence vs. unification’, ‘blue vs. green’ or ‘anti-China vs. pro-China’ discourses?

The Sunflower movement was able to galvanise public sympathy because it struck a chord with what already exists within modern Taiwanese society — a deep dissatisfaction with polarised party politics, an ineffective representative democracy and widening social inequality. In other words, while the Tiananmen movement failed to bridge the gap between its demands for political democracy and the demands for social equality, the success of the Sunflower movement resides in its ability to connect the political with the social; it acknowledges that Taiwan is in need of further democratisation in order to re-establish a more responsive (instead of reactive) political system conducive to greater societal transformation and progression.

Interestingly Taiwan and China share another similarity, that is, along with the explosion of the social, the ecological has pushed itself to the fore. While the mounting environmental crisis in China led to a surge in mass incidents relating to the environment in the past few years, opposition to a fourth nuclear power plant in Taiwan also continues to generate momentum. The environment is no longer just a scientific debate or a life-style choice, but for many a combination of social, economic and political issues and even a life-and-death matter. The Chinese and Taiwanese media and blogging sphere are key drivers of the nascent environmental movements in both societies. While I am less confident in predicting what environmental movements may lead to in China, it is highly likely that environment-related issues will constitute future battle grounds for social movements and the framing of further democratisation in Taiwan.

Dr Ming-yeh T. Rawnsley is Associate Fellow, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham and Research Associate, Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London. She is also the Secretary-General, European Association of Taiwan Studies.


Wang, Hui. (2003) China’s New Order (written by Hui Wang and ed. by Theodore Huters), Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Zhao, Yuezhi (forthcoming) ‘(Re)-Focusing on the Target: Reflections on a Trajectory of Studying the Chinese Media’, in Gary and Ming-yeh Rawnsley (eds), The Routledge Handbook of Chinese Media, London: Routledge.


  1. Thanks for the post, very interesting and would like to learn more about Wang Hui’s suggestion about the capacity to bridge political demand for democracy and the demand for social equality, a very refreshing concept

  2. Thanks for the comments, Wilfred. This is what Wang Hui said about democracy: ‘You need democracy in order to empower the state to take money from special interests to pay for public goods. In the 1990s there was a dichotomy between a free market and an authoritarian state. People thought that the economic reforms were working and that we could reform the state later. Now we see that many of the problems we are facing are a product of economic reforms and we need political reform to correct them.’

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