Written by Frank Cheng-shan Liu.

The “sunflower” student movement earlier this year aroused island-wide feelings about Taiwan’s political future. For some observers, it is the most important student movement since the late 1980s. However, the movement did not last long. Why didn’t this student-based “movement” turn out to be a society-wide movement as it appeared to be in the beginning? I looked back at a representative telephone survey collected before the movement and here I attempt to provide some explanations based on the findings.

A Few days before writing this essay, I found that my preliminary conclusions were generally confirmed by responses from one of my students who was active in the movement, whom I have not seen since last August. When I asked her about her experiences regarding the movement, she said, “What? Professor, how come you still think about it and mention it? It is gone. I felt frustrated from the process [because of the perceived lack of meaning and leadership to sustain the movement] and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

I did not ask her more about these negative feelings and could not interview all of my students who were active participants between March 18 and April 9. However, given what I have observed from the available data, I believe that her feeling should be considered fairly representative: Most of active students are expected to think and feel in a similar way. From my personal perspective, the movement won’t last when the debates about the core issue of the government’s Mainland China policy disappears from the agenda (or is responded to by political party leaders). Moreover, interest in keeping the movement going will weaken when students are under pressure from other generations, including their parents, who in general did not see the protest as salient, and when issues used to stimulate generations’ negative imagination about Mainland China are not supplied.

My data analysis was based on two datasets. One was collected between January 23 and February 4, 2013 (N=1,078) and the other was collected from January 10 to 24, 2014 (N=1,072). The response rates of the two surveys were 21.4 and 23.9 per cent, respectively, following AAPOR response rate formula 2. In both datasets, discrete generations in Taiwan are defined as follows:

  • The first generation was born before 1931, entering their formative years before 1949 and witnessing severe social conflicts between ethnic groups.
  • The second generation was born between 1932 and 1953. They entered their formative years between 1949 and 1971 and witnessed the diplomatic difficulties the ROC experienced.
  • The third generation was born between 1954 and 1968 and entered their formative years between 1972 and 1986 allowing them to witness Taiwan’s economic boom.
  • The fourth generation was born between 1969 and 1978. They entered their formative years between 1986 and 1996 and witnessed the era of student social movements for Legislative Yuan reform and the establishment of the DPP.
  • The fifth generation was born between 1979 and 1988. They entered their formative years between 1997 and 2006 and witnessed the missile crisis in 1996, in addition to experiencing the transfer of power from the KMT to the DPP in 2000.
  • The sixth generation, born after 1989, entered their formative years after 2007 and witnessed the transfer of power from DPP to KMT in 2008 and the debates and signing of the Cross-Strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) between 2010 and 2013.

The following findings are based on a series of logistic regression analyses, where the third generation is taken as the base of comparison.

First, the Sunflower generation (the sixth generation) is more likely than the third generation to identify themselves as citizens of either “Taiwan” or the “Republic of China”. This implies the emergence of new country identification that is less relevant to “China.” This also implies that for the sixth generation, Republic of China is replaceable and does not need to be the only name for their country.

Second, the second and the fifth generations, compared to the third generation, are likely to support the idea of creating a new country. This result challenges conventional wisdom that senior generations in general are more attached to the greater China concept. It implies that younger generations are likely to be Taiwan nationalists and that the Sunflower movement can be understood and tolerated, if not supported, by at least two generations of Taiwanese voters that have evolved to be more Taiwan-centric in terms of country identification.

Thirdly, I found in the data that Taiwanese people who think Taiwan’s democratic system is superior to Mainland China’s political system are likely to be those who have adopted “Taiwan” as the name for the country, who have a clear perception of Taiwan’s territory (as not including Mainland China), and who have a higher education level. The sixth generation feels less prejudice than the third generation does, which means they are less confident about Taiwan’s democracy. This helps to explain why the Sunflower generation is less sure about the effectiveness of their movement as a performance of democracy. I suspect that their views about the “318” movement won’t be as positive and enduring as those who participated in the White Lily movement in 1990 (third and the fourth generations).

Fourthly, overall, generations younger than 45, compared to the third generation, have started to form new opinions regarding Taiwan’s future. The fourth generation and younger have started to feel hostile toward Mainland China; the fifth generation and younger have rejected the concept of the Mainland Chinese “compatriots” (dalu tongbao); and the sixth generation distinguishes Hong Kong from the Mainland China in terms of national identity, i.e., Hong Kong people are not Chinese people.

Given these findings, I see that the sixth generation is a unique one, confident in saying “No” to Mainland China but not in the functionality of Taiwan’s democracy in terms of solving their concerns about Taiwan’s political future and bringing them economic hope. This conflict characterizes the “318” movement, which was primarily composed of the sixth generation of voters. This movement was “dissolved” without bloodier action, retaliation or strikes because the other generations (such as the second and the fifth) have grown sympathetic to the Taiwan independence movement and are able to tolerate this symbolic movement that is targeting the Mainland China. In effect, sentiment and sympathy without a strong purpose and clear policy goal of pursuing justice won’t last long. The Sunflower movement that was initiated by issue mobilization is one such example.

Frank Liu is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Political Science, National Sun Yat-Sen University.


  1. The author, Prof. Liu, says “In effect, sentiment and sympathy without a strong purpose and clear policy goal of pursuing justice won’t last long.” But at the start of the article, it can be understood that he is on the outside looking in, and does not have a sense of the long-term continuity of the contradictions and social issues. The leaders of the Sunflowers came out of five years of protest against land grabs, as well as the structural difficulties for the new generation — falling incomes and opportunities. These are not going to go away. Dr. Liu’s views are typical of political scientists who continually look at opinion polls or question people with low involvement (like the student he quotes) for understanding of the “average” condition; but this is a very superficial perspective, one that will never explain why and when protest breaks out. Any one protest movement is of course short-lived. The issues do not go away, however; and this is probably the formative experience for the present generation.

  2. Am I to assume that if there is a five month gap between major dramatic action (and thats discounting the formation of new parties and events in between) that such means that the movement didn’t last long? Is that what they teach at Sun Yat Sen University? Because if such is the case then doesn’t that mean just about any major movement in the last millennia all across the planet has fizzled out and “didn’t” last long before blowing up out of nowhere? Is that what they teach at Sun Yat Sen? That the Communists just died out and then “kapow” the KuoMinTang had to retreat out of the blue? Because that’s what they’re going to think with this kind of analysis.

    It’s amazing to see a professor use anecdotal evidence to push forward the idea that a movement has fizzled when it hasn’t been inactive, even though it still grabs headlines all the time, all based on some odd unspecified notion.

    Hopefully all the other analysis at Sun Yat Sen University isn’t like this.

  3. I have noticed that many scholars treat issues such as democracy and social movements merely as academic subjects. For these academics there is no direct link between the object of study and their own life. They usually justify their position with reference to the paradigm of positivism. As a consequence their work is often uninspiring. Their seemingly “objective” and “scientific” analysis is merely a re-affirmation of the position of the existing establishment and political status quo.

    Issues such as democracy and social movements relate to all of us in our role as active citizens. It is possible to exercise citizenship as an academic without being overly partisan or one-sided. Many scholars I know, both in mainland China and Taiwan, are able to straddle two horses at the same time: they are both serious academics as well as socially-conscious and active citizens. Andrew Nathan made the following interesting observation which is very relevant in this context:

    “(…) many historians and social scientists believe that value judgements may legitimately be made in the course of an inquiry, as long as they are clearly expressed as such and are separated from statements of fact. Some argue further that social inquiry is incomplete without an ethical dimension and that reasoned argument about value issues should be a standard part of social science research. Some even hold that ethical judgement constitutes social science’s main reason for being and the ultimate source of its meaning. In one way or another, all these views recognize that values play an important role in social science inquiry alongside empirical analysis.” (Andrew Nathan 1997, China’s Transition, Columbia University Press, New York, 198).

    Although I took a great interest in the Sunflower Movement I did not publicly comment on it. When the events unfolded early this year I was in the UK. I did not feel qualified to make value judgments about the goals and motivations of the participants in this social movement since I did not have the opportunity to talk to them individually. This is why I am skeptical when I learn that a researcher did not bother to experience the events personally, either as an active participant or bystander.

    Without direct personal experience I suspect academics lack the empathic capability to come up with a balanced and rounded analysis. And while of course it is perfectly legitimate to be critical of a social movement scholars should ask themselves about the utility of their own research. Does it help readers to become more self-reflective and critical citizens or does it only feed apathy and cynicism? There is a political dimension to scholarship that has been downplayed or ignored for far too long.

  4. Thank you for the comments. Honestly, I never think that I am qualified to write directly about this social movement. When I was invited to give some thoughts, I thought what I can share is what data says about a general picture of generations’ country identity BEFORE the sunflower movement. My data was collected in Feb, 2014 and someone may understand it is valuable. I respect what data told me and look forward more criticism on that part. NSYSU is full of excellent scholars, including positivists, realists, and pragmatists. We never lacks philosophers. Many of my colleagues contributed directly to the movement. I am proud of them.

  5. I was requested to provide the data, but the raw data sets and the full analysis are not ready for public access (one year from now), I am providing here the frequency tables of the surveys. Please feel free to contact me for comments on survey design, questionnaire wording, and variables for future studies. http://cl.ly/1N0L3W101f3x.

  6. I read what I wrote over again. I acknowledge the last paragraph of the blog post was subjective and was not rooted completely at the data. The critiques focus on my last two sentences that smell cynicism. I accept such critiques. Although I was not be able to join the movement (yes, I am not in Taiwan that time) I wanted. I know students’ pressure did not come from simply other generations’ attitudes toward China. And other generations’ attitudes toward China is not the only explanation for the whole dynamics of the movement. As this movement is composed of multiple purposes, I acknowledge that my assumption that this movement is all about China can be too simplified.

    Overall, it is arguable if it is proper to connect my studies on country identification directly to the discussion about implication of Sunflower movement. My purpose of writing was not to spread cynicism as the last two sentences look to be. My purpose was to call for readers’ attention to what those non-students felt and thought when they saw this movement under the shadow of China.

    Thank you all for all valuable comments and I look forward to more.

  7. Why not interpret the Sunflower Movement as the formative experience for an entire generation of young people? (Albeit that generation would not fit neatly with the generations constructed in the article based on their national identification.) As was remarked before, no issue-based movement can be sustained for very long. And indeed, labeling the activists only in the context of the Sunflower Movement does not do their longterm involvement justice. The SM was only one instance in an entire series of political activities.
    The effect of the SM, however, can be observed a year after the movement. It shows in increased participation in politics on the part of young people who had been mocked as 草莓族 before, participation in unprecedented ways, with very daring techniques, and a change in attitude toward the political establishment. I strongly believe that Ko-P would not have been elected mayor of Taipei without the movement. Lastly, perhaps the strongest proof of longterm changes is the latest activism against the curriculum changes pushed by the KMT. Not only do the students employ similar techniques as the Sunflowers, but the demographic scope has even changed in that much younger people are invested in political activism (people that have not been taken seriously either by older generations or political scientists, as the suggested connection between national identification/ voting eligibility and political opinion assumes).
    My observation is that the “geneartion” I mentioned cannot really be confined to a specific age group, either. But then again, I am biased toward a qualitative methodological approach.

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