Written by J. Michael Cole.

The question has been nagging at the edges of my mind ever since it was first thrown at me after I gave a presentation on social movements at a forum organized by SOAS in June: How do we define success in the context of civic activism? Furthermore, how do we evaluate success when the battle over an idea, a policy, continues to rage and has not come to a proper resolution? Having now been asked to share a few thoughts about the Sunflower Movement on the six-month anniversary of the occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, I would posit that while the dispute over the agreement which prompted the activists to do what they did remains unfinished business, the unprecedented occupation itself and the publicity it engendered were, in and of themselves, a great success. In fact, I would argue that the Sunflower Movement was the best thing that happened in and for Taiwan in the past decade.

Defining success

Before critics of such a claim (you will find many of them within the establishment) launch their counteroffensive—the Sunflowers were undemocratic, irrational, emotional, violent, illegal, pawns, and so on—let me qualify my statement. My point is that the Sunflowers’ greatest success was not that it delayed passage of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) by a few months, that it compelled the authorities to explore the possibility of implementing a monitoring mechanism for future agreements with China, or even that it caused a split within the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). Though no mean feats, those achievements were at best temporary in nature, and there is now good reason to believe that, having weathered that storm, the Ma Ying-jeou administration intends to return to business as usual by implementing the CSSTA and rushing the follow-on trade-in-goods agreement. The fact that new, far-reaching law enforcement measures have been implemented since April to deal with future unrest certainly reinforces that view. (There is, furthermore, renewed talk about a summit between Ma and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, before Ma steps down in 2016 after completing his two consecutive terms in office. An administration which believes it was neutralized by its opponents probably wouldn’t be contemplating such a controversial meeting.)

Of course, success could be measured on the question of whether the movement had managed to nix the CSSTA altogether, or prevent the Ma administration from signing future such agreements with Beijing. If that is the yardstick by which we measure success, then the Sunflower Movement probably failed. After all, the activists faced an opponent that models itself after Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP), with which it shares highly paternalistic and “soft authoritarian” tendencies. In other words, it—the government—knows what is best for Taiwan, and any disagreement over the direction of its policies is the result of misunderstandings, poor vertical communication, or the “irrationality” of its critics.

Rather, the true success of the Sunflower Movement was its ability to send a powerful signal across Taiwan and, more importantly, to the international community that pressures have been building up within Taiwan. Although there was plenty of evidence of such pressures during 2012 and 2013 (the coincidence with the beginning of Ma’s second term is no accident), it wasn’t until March 2014 and the markedly escalatory actions taken by the Sunflower Movement that the world started to take notice. The emergence of the Sunflower Movement occurred at a time when longstanding opponents of the Ma administration and the KMT which he chairs, such as the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), were finding it increasingly difficult to gain traction overseas. This was largely the result of sustained propaganda from Beijing and Taipei, corporate interests, and a premium in foreign capitals on stability and predictability in the Taiwan Strait, with the belief that the KMT was better placed to ensure continuity. Consequently, whenever the DPP or smaller groups in the green camp criticized the Ma administration, their interlocutors saw crass electoral politics or irrationality. In other words, the DPP’s reputation had so suffered that even when its claims were legitimate, its foreign counterparts found it difficult to agree with it. Others may simply have acted on the principle that opposing the KMT (and its allies in the Chinese Communist Party) was inconvenient to business and stability.

Resistance to alternative narratives in the Taiwan Strait had therefore become structural, and that structure was stacked against the narrative proposed by the DPP and its allies on the political scene. Foreign assessments of Taiwan’s relations with China were therefore based not on empirical reality, but rather on “a battery of desires, repressions, investments and projections,” as Edward Said wrote in Orientalism. The fact that most foreign experts on Taiwan, along with officials, were insulated from the green camp (e.g., MOFA often forgets to include the DPP on foreign delegations’ itineraries, or makes sure to send a minder, who takes notes and records conversations when such meetings do occur) only exacerbated the problem for the DPP, which also had its own limitations when it came to communicating with the external world.

The narrative therefore became enmeshed with the politics of power, and Michel Foucault would immediately have observed that the KMT and its allies within the established structure had things well under control. As a result, despite evidence of growing discontent within Taiwanese society, perceptions outside were that things were stable and that the Ma administration was encountering little, if any, resistance to its policy of rapprochement with China, or to the vested interests that tended to guide the process, often at the detriment of society itself. Hundreds of protests were held across Taiwan in 2012 and 2013 organized by a constellation of small movements, NGOs, and self-help organizations, but the world rarely, if ever, paid attention. After all, Taiwan was already a democracy, so what if a few hundred malcontents took to the streets, lobbed shoes at government officials, or briefly occupied a government building to protest against a series of forced evictions? The common narrative, one that was encouraged by the authorities, was that the protesters were a tiny minority, that they did not speak for the “silent” majority, and that they were, again, “irrational.”

The Sunflower Movement changed all this (though the above accusations continued). All of a sudden, it wasn’t hundreds, or a few thousands, of people who were protesting against government policy, but several tens of thousands. And this time they broke the rules by occupying parliament for 24 days and the Executive Yuan for a few hours. Moreover, those escalatory measures were accompanied by a well-honed propaganda campaign sustained by social media and a global network of individuals who were willing to help with translation, dissemination of information, production, and local protests. Where the established opposition had failed, the Sunflower Movement succeeded: Expressions of discontent not only reached a global audience, but in many corners they were seen as legitimate and, just as importantly, newsworthy.

Predictably, the establishment—media organizations close to the KMT, corporate interests, and Beijing—once again sought to discredit the movement, but its heterogeneous composition, which abstracted ethnicity, age, political preferences and “class,” meant that those efforts were far less successful. The charismatic nature of the leadership, along with the fact that it was led (though not solely comprised of) students, also ensured greater appeal abroad than the usual platitudes about the KMT and the “China threat” offered by cynical and tired faces within the green camp. The Sunflower Movement therefore was in a much better position to fight the war for hearts and minds, and confronted with such an opponent, the Ma administration fared rather poorly (and often overreacted), as evidenced by the disproportionate use of police force during the night of March 23-24 at the Executive Yuan.

The Sunflower Movement therefore succeeded where others had failed: It channeled mounting anxieties and in doing so on a large scale it put Taiwan on the map. Through sustained efforts, it alerted a large number of people overseas—journalists, officials, and academics—that there is trouble brewing in the Taiwan Strait, that not everybody agrees with the scope and pace of rapprochement with a regime that in recent years has grown more, rather than less, repressive. They also demonstrated that when certain lines are crossed, a large and inclusive segment of Taiwanese society will not remain passive but will rather take appropriate action, even at the risk of arrest, lawsuits, or bruises. Not everybody is convinced of the legitimacy of the Sunflowers’ actions and grievances, and to this day there are many foreign academics and officials who continue to believe that the whole exercise was illegal. Unsurprisingly, such views are usually espoused by people whose already infrequent contact with Taiwan is limited to government officials and who were “too busy” (or simply not interested) to meet with the activists during or after the occupation.

While it has yet to be fully appreciated, that success in signaling growing discontent should serve as a warning to the international community that the Taiwan Strait is not yet, as the Ma administration would want us to believe, an “avenue of peace.” Ultimately, the Sunflowers’ actions is a wake-up call, made all the more resonant given recent developments in Hong Kong, to China hands. Despite the rapprochement that has occurred since 2008, ties between Taiwan and China have only been warmed at the superficial level; the contradictions and incompatibilities remain as deep as they ever were, and are becoming starker as authoritarian China expands the areas in which it can gain control over Taiwanese society. The Sunflower Movement’s greatest achievement was to make it clear that the Taiwan Strait remains a dangerous place, and that the policy of foreign governments pushing Taiwan in a direction it would rather not choose (inevitably closer to China) is a recipe for disaster.

Having read this far, some might still be unconvinced. After all, they will say, the Sunflower Movement cannot claim to have spoken for Taiwanese society, for the so-called silent majority. The 350,000 to 500,000 people who mobilized for the March 30 rally accounted at most for 1/46th of the Taiwanese population. Such numbers games are unfair. No revolution (and here I use the term loosely, as the movement never was a revolution in the sense that it never sought to overturn government institutions) ever succeeds in mobilizing the whole of society. The majority usually observes from the sidelines, waiting to see the future direction of things, which they will then follow.

Still, numbers do mean something, and the sustained presence of tens of thousands of people at any given time during those fateful 24 days indicates that enough Taiwanese had enough imagination to realize that their way of life is under threat. It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand that the soft authoritarian model used by the PAP to rule over Singapore is a possible future for Taiwan. President Ma has already lauded that model, as have others in his administration. A minimum of familiarity with the highly restrictive nature of the Singaporean government, as I discovered during a recent visit there, is enough to reaffirm the value of the hard-fought-for freedoms that are far too often taken for granted in Taiwan, and which make Taiwan such a unique, precious place. Taiwan is already engaged on the slippery slope towards the Singapore model, thanks to President Ma. Many Taiwanese (and foreign experts) seem unaware of what they stand to lose. This is a crime. Singaporean activists would give a lot to experience the liberties that are enjoyed by Taiwanese. The frog is being cooked, and Singaporeans know that the promised dish isn’t exactly a delicacy; they know because this is one that they have been force-fed for years.

Where are they now?

Successes notwithstanding, the Sunflower Movement, or whatever successor movement emerges in its wake, cannot afford to lose its focus. Worryingly, this is exactly what seems to have happened. The movement has splintered and its members are now busy fighting among themselves. In the period of uncertainty that followed the occupation, the common fears that had succeeded in bringing together the disparate groups that become the Sunflower Movement were replaced by fissiparous forces. Several factors contributed to this, including differences over strategies, the infusion of new thinking. For example, the Black Island Nation Youth Alliance, one of the precursors of the Sunflower Movement, is now divided and seems to have been taken over by individuals who espouse a Marxist viewpoint, e.g., the struggle isn’t over Taiwan’s sovereignty, but rather of the “have-nots” versus the wealthy class; others yet have joined forces with stridently anti-Chinese and pro-independence groups.

The movement also appears to have become directionless; or rather, it seems to have gone into several directions at once. Some splinter groups have adopted a hardline anti-globalization stance; others, such as Taiwan March, have moved from trade agreements with China and shifted their to focus to, say, referendum reform, leading some of the initial members to fear that they will not be able to mobilize enough activists should the Ma administration attempt to pass the trade-in-goods agreement.

Another divisive factor has been the jealousy that has developed against the young charismatic leadership of the Sunflower Movement, namely Chen Wei-ting, Lin Fei-fan, Huang Kuo-chang and a few others. Following the occupation, the leaders became darlings of the media and were invited to participate in conferences overseas. This has created resentment among the hundreds of foot soldiers who, not unreasonably, argue that while they played just as important a role in the movement, have been completely ignored since. They also contend that the top leadership has grown increasingly “dictatorial,” that it no longer takes other views into account. Whether such accusations are valid or are the product of jealousy is of little import; the important thing is that the movement is now split and unable to work together. It remains to be seen whether new developments, such as the government pushing a new agreement with China, would succeed in once again rallying all those disparate elements to focus on a common cause.

The emphasis on recognizable figures from the Sunflower Movement has also caused other problems. Organizations overseas that prior to the occupation had failed to show any interest in Taiwanese social movements have since sought to exploit the stardom status of the Sunflower leaders by inviting them to speak at various functions overseas. In some instances, fundraising rather than education was the principal motivation behind such activities. On a few occasions the young leaders, while successful in a domestic context, performed poorly abroad and demonstrated their lack of understanding of international politics. That the inviting organizations failed to prepare them only compounded the problem, which in the end only succeeded in hurting the image of the movement in foreign eyes.

The DPP, whose inability to convince civil society that it was a viable alternative to the government was a factor in the emergence of the Sunflower Movement has since sought to undo those mistakes by reaching out to young activists. Since the end of the occupation, a number of Sunflowers have joined the party and now occupy various positions (in the non-activist sense of the word) at its headquarters. The process hasn’t been without controversy, as in some instances the activists-turned-party-members have been accused of “selling out” and joining the system. Besides seeking to act as a bridge between the purely oppositionist elements of civil society and the enablers who operate within the state apparatus, the DPP has also attempted to engage activists via small group meetings. This effort could eventually succeed in aligning the views of the main opposition party with those of social movements and thereby form a “united front” against the KMT (and, in the context of cross-strait relations, the CCP). In some cases, the DPP has hoped to help young activists better understand how to engage international society and foreign governments, or to avoid unduly alienating potential allies in Washington, D.C.

One such approach was made earlier this month, when the DPP reached out to Oliver Chen, a 26-year-old NTU law student who had played an indispensible role in the Sunflower Movement’s foreign outreach. Within 24 hours of being contacted by the party, Chen was dead. According to official reports, Chen died in a motorcycle accident at night, falling off a cliff after losing control of his vehicle on a slippery stretch of road. Very little evidence has come to light, and many questions remain, such as the reason why Chen was on a stretch of road—one of the most dangerous across the nation—leading to an area he had no conceivable reason to visit, especially in the middle of the night. Other important details pertaining to the accident, such as autopsy records, video footage, and so on, have also not been released.

Chen had recently joined Taiwan March, the latest effort by Sunflower Movement veteran Huang Kuo-chang, and was being groomed as a future leader.

Unexplained accidents

In the past year, there has been an unusually high incidence of traffic accidents involving activists or people involved in the opposition. On Nov. 30, 2013, Frida Tsai, a spokeswoman for the Taiwan Rural Front (TRF), a group which had spearheaded opposition to various government urban renewal projects and forced evictions, was hit by a car in Miaoli County while crossing a road. Tsai nearly died and was plunged into a coma, though she has since made an extraordinary recuperation. Among other things, the TRF had been involved in efforts to prevent the demolition of houses in Dapu, Miaoli County, in the summer. The demolitions occurred in July 18. Two months later, one of the victims, Chang Sen-wen, was found dead in a drainage ditch. Though local police authorities claimed it was a suicide, autopsy reports were not made available to the family and a gag order was imposed on the medical examiner. As is often the case, there were “problems” with the CCTV footage.

In June 2014, a close aide to DPP chairperson Tsai Ing-wen was hit by a speeding motorcycle as she exited her car. The aide, who played an indispensible role as Tsai’s scheduler and go-between, spent several weeks in a deep coma and came very close to succumbing to her brain injuries. As with all the other cases discussed above, police made very little details of the accident available.

Of course, this could simply be extraordinarily bad luck by individuals who have made common cause against the government, and there is no evidence to prove that foul play was involved. We must nevertheless weigh the high improbability of this string of incidents/accidents against the emergence—or re-emergence—of organized crime as an active participant in Taiwanese politics. Underworld figures mobilized resources prior to, during, and after the Sunflower occupation, often to “protect” Ma administration officials or visiting Chinese delegations. Despite resorting to violence against unarmed activists, those crime syndicates, which are pro-unification with China, have been left alone by law-enforcement authorities.

Whether triads had anything to do with those accidents, or that a nexus exists between those and the current administration, lies in the realm of speculation. But whatever the cause, the string of accidents involving critics of the government is now part of the narrative within civil society and could act as a factor in activists’ willingness to engage in civil disobedience. Fear is now a factor in the calculations of civil society, one which can serve to counter the willingness and ability of activists to engage in sustained activism, a crucial ingredient for success against a government that can simply wear them out.

Given the close alliance between the KMT and organized crime during the authoritarian era,[1] added to the CCP’s own reliance on triads to threaten its opponents in Hong Kong, gangsters are a variable in the complex environment of cross-strait relations that once again cannot be ignored, and whose impact on civil society’s ability to act as a check on the government’s China policy can be all too real.

J. Michael Cole is a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei, and editor in chief of www.thinking-taiwan.com. Image by J. Michael Cole.

[1] The gangsters who were hired by the Chiang Ching-kuo government to assassinate Henry Liu in 1984 were members of the Bamboo Union. After returning to Taiwan after 16 years in exile in China, former Bamboo Union head Chang An-le (a.k.a. “White Wolf”) has entered politics on a pro-unification platform. Chang, who claims he is no longer associated with gangsters, was indirectly involved in the Liu murder in the San Francisco suburb. He organized the April 1 protest against the Sunflower Movement, which would have turned violent had riot police not intervened. In 2013, Chang threatened the leaders of a labor rights organization and offered to dispatch 2,000 of his followers to ensure protection for President Ma. Several unidentified men believed to be associated with Chang were mobilized during Zhang Zhijun’s visit to Taiwan in June and used physical violence against activists who were protesting the visit. Chang is known to be closely associated with, and likely funded by, the Chinese intelligence apparatus.


  1. Another legacy of Sunflower Movement is a wake up call for a Congress that represents the general public. The business sector like stability and wrongfully embrace the China policy without consideration for freedom is the main core for stability.

    If Taiwan wants to continue what she enjoys now, Taiwan has to find a China policy that would be benefit to both sides and preserves freedom and democracy at the same time.

    Taiwan has to have a strong opposition, members of DPP congressional wo/men are still in minority and have not win a single vote since Chen’s administration that has clear benefit to Taiwan populace. DPP has to undergo a drastic reform or it may not survive another election.

  2. The Sunflower Movement has send a powerful signal to the world that Taiwan’s democratic way of life is under threat. As such it has been a wake-up call. It is highly troubling that apart from factional infighting among student leaders these mysterious accidents are happening to influential individuals within the movement. All of these incidents need to be investigated and if there was foul play involved the people responsible need to be brought to justice.

    Moving forward the key question is whether activists will be able to channel the energy and creativity of their social movement into rejuvenating Taiwan’s increasingly dysfunctional democratic institutions, e.g. the Legislative Yuan. It is good to hear that there is some form of rapprochement between civil society activists and the DPP. The DPP’s predecessor dangwai used to be somewhat better aligned with civil society and social movements in the 1970s and 1980s.

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