Fighting for Democracy: The Story of the Taiwanese Sunflower Movement

How Taiwanese Students Occupied the Legislature Yuan, Galvanized the Nation, and (Possibly) Saved Democracy on a Small Island Nation.

by Karen E. Bender

photographs by Lucie Starr

infographic by Grace Molteni

Editors’ Note: This longform story is meant to be read in tandem with interviews that Karen E. Bender conducted with 15 members of the Sunflower Movement and one police officer. These interviews are found here and published “in their own words” with the help of three translators. American photographer Lucie Starr provided portraits for each protester willing to share his or her story.

On November 29, 2014, voters went to the polls in Taiwan to change the political landscape of this small democratic island. The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan swept the elections against the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), party – the DPP won 13 constituencies in the mayoral and commissioner elections, while the KMT won just six. As far as voter margins go, the gap was significant – the DPP won 47.6 percent of the vote; KMT won 40.7 percent. The election sent shudders through the KMT leadership; after the defeat on December 1, Premier Jiang Yi-huah and his entire Cabinet resigned, Jiang telling his Cabinet members that the polling results showed that the nation “did not like the direction the country was taking.” Shortly after, Ma Ying-Jeou, the President of Taiwan, resigned as head of the KMT party. Residents of Taipei enthusiastically elected Dr. Ko Wen-Je, a surgeon with no political experience who ran as an Independent, telling his supporters he seeks “the widest possible consensus in policy-making.” It was the first time a non-KMT candidate had won in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, in 16 years.

Riveter_Taipei_600x400

PROLOGUE

The stirrings of this change started about eight months earlier, with Taiwan’s Sunflower movement, which began on March 18, 2014. Hundreds of residents of Taiwan—mostly students, but also sales agents and businesspeople and professors and retirees and dance teachers and lawyers—stormed the Legislative Yuan (LY) in Taipei, the Taiwanese equivalent of the United States Capitol building, to, they told me, “save their nation.” They leapt over walls, walked through unguarded entrances, and climbed up ladders into the legislative chambers. For three weeks, they lived inside, while thousands to tens of thousands (depending on the day) protested outside the LY.

The movement found its name when a florist donated boxes of sunflowers to the cause. This donation symbolized the casting of light over the “black box” or under-the-table politics. The name stuck.

I was living in Taiwan with my family for the year because my husband had received a Fulbright grant to teach American literature and creative writing at Tunghai University. When I walked by storefronts in Taiwan in late March and early April 2014, an endless live video stream of the protests played on TVs: there were scenes of the protesters occupying the legislature; the chairs that the legislators used lashed together and stacked against doors; students sleeping in sleeping bags; and handmade signs saying “Free Taiwan” stretching across the areas where legislators usually spoke. The entire nation watched, riveted and worried. The United States government had shut down a few months before, when our own elected officials, squabbling about details of the Affordable Care Act, could not compromise on a budget, and I was rather in awe of the protesters, who, when they felt their own government had betrayed them, had organized with simple, rather stunning effectiveness. When they felt their legislators were not following basic democratic procedure, they climbed inside and brought their government to a halt.

The protests were a marvel of organization among thousands of people, mostly students. There were 100 to 200 people inside the Legislative Yuan at a time, and thousands to tens of thousands in the streets, preventing and witnessing police action. Restaurants donated food to the protesters; supporters donated sleeping bags and tents for those outside. Legislators from the DPP used guest privileges to let occupiers into the building, and DPP party leadership went on TV to urge police restraint. Legislators held meetings at other locations during that time, but no bills were passed.

On March 23, a group of students attempted to rush into a nearby government building, the Executive Yuan, but police pushed them back with water cannons and beat them. On March 30, an estimated 500,000 people gathered in the area to support the Sunflower Movement protesters.

The protesters felt their democracy was in danger because of a treaty, the blandly titled Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement. (Taiwan is literally across a strait from Mainland China.) This treaty would open industries such as tourism, publishing, telecommunications and banking to wide investment from China. Taiwan, 100 miles off the southeast coast of China, is a democratically-governed nation; the country’s first democractic presidential elections were held in 1996. Most Taiwanese do not want unification with China, as they’ve seen how Hong Kong has been transformed since China assumed control of it from Britain in 1997.

In Hong Kong, press freedom has diminished in recent years, with Mainland China restricting journalist’s access to information, and with violent attacks on journalists and technical attacks on websites; Beijing recently wanted to add “moral and national education” to Hong Kong’s schools, a plan quelled by protests. Beijing’s declaration in August that a “broadly representative nominating committee” would issue nominations for the chief executive of Hong Kong and created fears that all the candidates would be pro-mainland China; it led to the massive protests in Hong Kong that began in September 2014 and lasted until December 11.

Taiwanese residents also feared that the Cross-Strait treaty would lead to unification with the mainland and hence be harmful to Taiwanese businesses and curtail freedom of expression. Since June 2013, there had been protests about the bill; the overwhelming majority of Taiwanese wanted further review of the treaty by the legislators.

The protestors expected that if their government worked as it was supposed to, there would have been more debate—and transparency—about the bill. But on March 17, KMT Legislator Chang Ching-Chung, who was loyal to President Ma (who wanted the bill to sail through) announced that the review would begin. Thirty seconds later, Chang said the review was complete and the bill would go to the floor for a vote. The KMT held a majority, and it seemed certain that this bill, which could have a huge influence on the nation, would become law.

The bill, many felt, had to be stopped. The next day, the Sunflower Movement began.

HISTORY

Taiwan is a small nation—about the size of Maryland and Delaware combined—colonized by the Dutch, Spanish, and most recently, by the Japanese from 1895 to 1945. In 1945, the Republic of China, led by the KMT, took control of the island. In 1949, Chinese nationalists, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan during the Chinese Civil War and lost the mainland to Communists. The KMT ruled Taiwan with strict martial law from 1945 until 1987, and many Taiwanese suffered terrible injustice under the system of martial law. The KMT was known to be behind a massacre of an estimated 18,000 to 28,000 Taiwanese in 1947, now known as the “228 Massacre,” the facts of which were suppressed for decades. The period from 1949 to 1987 was known as the period of “White Terror,” in which 140,000 to 200,000 Taiwanese, mostly the intellectual and political elite, were arrested for perceived or real opposition to the KMT party; 3,000 to 4,000 were executed.

Now, most citizens identify themselves as Taiwanese, not Chinese, which is a generational and demographic shift. Part of the protestors’ anger has to do with a long-standing distrust of the KMT, which was the majority party in the Legislature, and at the time of the protests, maintained control over all branches of the government. The KMT’s rush to pass the bill tapped into old angers toward the party and fears that this could lead to the country being swallowed up by China—which by now, the majority of Taiwanese do not want.

The political status of Taiwan (also called the Republic of China) can be confusing to outsiders. Mainland China claims that it maintains sovereignty over Taiwan, that it is part of the People’s Republic of China, and that Taiwan will be reunited with the mainland in the future. Chiang Kai-shek, the military and political leader of Mainland China, fled to Taiwan in 1949, establishing a government “in exile” and claiming Taiwan was the “real” China. At this time, both Taiwan and Mainland China claimed to be the same country. Never recognizing Taiwan as a nation, the U.S. formally recognized the People’s Republic of China (the Mainland) as the sole China in 1979. Now the United States operates the American Institute in Taiwan, which functions as an embassy, but is not officially an embassy. (According to the State Department, the U.S. and Taiwan enjoy a “robust unofficial relationship.”) Taiwan is not a member state of the United Nations, but aspires to be one, and Mainland China opposes its participation.

The fact that Taiwan is not fully recognized by many other democratic nations (though it is a thriving democracy and the world’s 17th freest economy, according to the Index of Economic Freedom) was demonstrated vividly at Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 10/10 day, or National Day. When I attended a celebration there in 2013, I noticed which diplomats were in attendance, celebrating Taiwan, and which were not. The countries represented, or the ones who had formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, included the Vatican, Burkina Faso, Swaziland, Belize, Haiti, El Salvador, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Guatemala. The world’s great democracies — The United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, the United States — were not.

“SAVE YOUR OWN COUNTRY”

The national government buildings in Taipei are generic office buildings that look like they could be housing insurance companies or law firms, and they sit on tree-lined streets near Taipei’s main train station. In late April 2014, they were surrounded by barbed wire. Giant silver coils, like bright, jagged Slinkys, wound around eight-foot-tall X-shaped metal barricades. Police holding blue riot shields stood guard at the entrances.

Ian Rowen, a friend and Fulbright scholar researching cross-strait relations via tourism, was giving me a tour of the government buildings, now a barbed wire zone. He was cheerfully wearing a black T-shirt that said, “Fuck The Government,” which made me a bit nervous, but no one gave him a second glance. We walked by a street where protesters had set up canvas booths; there were tents where people sold more T-shirts that stated in English, “Fuck The Government” (below these words, in Mandarin, were the words, “Save Your Own Country”).  One handmade sign taped to a fence said, “9% approval Ma, you suck!” (President Ma Ying-jeou’s approval ratings had been in the single digits in the weeks before the protests began.) Strips of yellow cloth were tied to the fence with anti-nuclear slogans, and activists with graying ponytails and rainbow-dyed headbands sat in tents handing out petitions. The sounds of guitar rang through the air.

“It looks like Berkeley,” I said.

Ian agreed. It turned out that he was also from California and we had, bizarrely, even attended the same high school, Palisades High, but about 15 years apart. He was a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, had been in Taiwan for the year doing research, and in the last month had become deeply involved in the Sunflower Movement. He had climbed over a fence into the Legislative Yuan’s courtyard on March 18, the first night of the occupation, and chatted with the young protesters in the courtyard. He came back March 19, climbed a ladder and entered the building for seven hours. The next day he returned and stayed inside the Legislative Yuan for 40 hours, posting about the occupation on Facebook and connecting activists with foreign media. He became the only Westerner to receive a numbered badge that allowed him to freely enter and exit the building. (After coming in and out of the building for six days, he asked the international translation team for a badge and received one with no formal process.)

As we walked, Ian told me more about his involvement with the protests. He said that right from the beginning, he was “impressed with the occupiers’ concern for their peers’ well being.” It was before the occupation stabilized, and there was “serious worry about imminent police invasion, cutting of the power lines, sabotaged sewage systems to drive us out, or a sealing of doors.”

Two days after the initial occupation, Ian returned to the Legislative Yuan. The ladder had been removed, and he couldn’t get a press pass on short notice, so he talked to an ex-legislator, Chou Ching-yu, whom he had spotted inside the day before; she walked him as far as she could before the police said that, as a former legislator, she couldn’t bring him inside. Then Ian saw a current legislator, Chen Chi-Mai, and showed him a card with his academic credentials, including his affiliation with Academia Sinica, a university in Taipei; Ian told Mr. Chen that he supported the occupation and was there to research it, and the legislator smiled and walked him in. Ian didn’t come out for the next 40 hours. After leaving, he returned almost every day and stayed more nights until the end, connecting activists with foreign media; he became the only consistent personal source of breaking English-language news from within the Legislative Yuan.

At the time, I was teaching a class called “Finding Your Story,” a beginning creative writing course, to undergraduates. They were Foreign Language majors and this was the first creative writing course many of them had taken. They softly read out loud their honest observations about a variety of topics: problematic boyfriends, competition in a lacrosse team, parents in contentious marriages. Meanwhile, I watched the videos of the students inside the LY, and I ached to learn the stories of the protesters, many of whom were the same age as my students. What had they experienced in this historic moment? What had it been like, for each of them, trying to save democracy at the Legislative and Executive Yuan?

When I emailed Ian in mid-April that I was interested in hearing the protesters’ stories, he posted an announcement on his Facebook page. Ian, who had been inside the Legislative Yuan for several days by that time, was friends with many of the protesters and connected me with those who wanted to talk. We met at Café Philo, a café about a 20-minute walk from the Legislative Yuan; it was where the protesters now tended to gather after leaving the LY for good on April 10. I didn’t want to learn about policy from them, and I didn’t want to chase down the movement’s leaders—students who were now celebrities in Taiwan. I wanted to know what it was like to be one of the thousands who were part of this, and what they experienced when they were there.

The protesters began to contact me through Facebook. I heard from Lora Chen, who wanted to talk, but couldn’t until after Friday, because she had midterms. There was Betty Apple, a sound artist who had helped create the song “Island Sunrise,” which became an anthem for the movement. There was Jen-hao Randolph Cheng, an art broker, who had posted a harrowing, first-person account on his Facebook page of being kicked out of the Executive Yuan, titled, “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times.” Then, some protestors found me separately from Ian; a woman who called herself Marie Turner emailed and said that a Ms. Yeh would be interested in speaking with me. One of my students said that she had a friend who was a police officer who had been at the Executive Yuan; he wanted to speak to me if he didn’t have to use his name.

At Café Philo, Ian and I met the protesters and my friend Lucie Starr, an American photographer living in Taiwan for the year. She was going to be part of the project, taking photos of the protesters, but was worried they wouldn’t want to be photographed. We thought that if they didn’t want their faces photographed, Lucie could take a photograph of a hand holding an object that was important to them.

I emailed the potential interviewees, asking them if they were comfortable with their faces being photographed.

Yes. Yes. Yes.

“I’LL WAIT ‘FOREVER’ TO TELL MY STORY”

Ian and I reached Café Philo, a café that hosts Friday night philosophy forums, a place where clientele lean fervently over their lattes. It was one of those restaurants that had “Western” food, quiches and club sandwiches and such, (the attempts at diner food I sometimes found to be depressing in Taiwan.) Inside the restaurant, it was loud, packed with patrons chatting eagerly, so we went outside and set chairs around a small steel table instead. It was only a little better out there; beside us, a group of men were also holding intense discussions. I had to lean very close to hear the protesters.

April is “plum rain season” in Taiwan, and the blue sky over Taipei filled with clouds and broke into sudden rain when the protesters began to arrive. There was Lora Chen, who had sent me a link to the Stanford Prison experiment as a way of understanding the stresses for those inside the Legislative Yuan. There were students Layla Lin and her friend Shi-Chi, who had tiny six-week-old kittens with them; the kittens were passed around, cuddled by the various activists. There were Jennifer Cheng and Elaine Lin, sales agents and friends for years who brought me passionate, single-spaced, typed responses to the seven questions. There was a tiny video on Elaine Lin’s cell phone, showing how she was lifted over the other protesters to try to get to the door of the Executive Yuan, her small body carried over the others like she was on a river, and then, examining her face more closely, how she was crying, in pain. There were three friends, Peter Pan, Bruce Lin and Roger Wu; Bruce wore a white linen fedora hat; Roger wore a black tailored jacket and a necklace with a large caliber bullet as a pendant. They were courtly, frequently pouring water for Lucie and me during the interviews. They walked me to the train station when I finished interviewing them and talked about their admiration for Occupy Wall Street.

Interviewees set items that had been important to them while occupying the LY on a small table at the café. Lora held out the laminated card with the sticker GOV that allowed her to enter and exit the Legislative Yuan, an occupied building that quickly became a place you could only enter with an official ID. Layla handed me the bottle of eyedrops she needed for her contact lenses; Jennifer and Elaine showed me barrettes with sunflowers on them.

Many of those I interviewed then friended me on Facebook, and my newsfeed was suddenly awash with photos of water cannons at the protests that were going on in Taipei that weekend. There were many protests going on at the end of April, about a variety of other issues. There were groups of students heading out, intently, all day, to various meetings. Protesters fought against the trade agreement and against the proposed building of another nuclear power plant in Taiwan (many residents of Taiwan, an earthquake-prone island, were particularly worried about this after Japan’s Fukishima disaster in 2011). There were other small protests about trees that were being illegally moved by a billionaire land developer.

On Facebook I noticed the dichotomy between my U.S. connections and my Taiwanese connections. In Taiwan: protesters huddling, wearing raincoats and clutching each other as the spray from the water cannons hammered them. In the US: a photo of breakfast; a survey: what character on Star Trek are you? In Taiwan: A student at a protest with blood trickling down his forehead.

The next week, there were more interviews at Café Philo. First, there was Jen-hao Randolph Cheng, in jeans, with a jagged punk haircut, who was glad I was interested in the protests but wanted to know if I knew any Taiwanese history at all. Then Mr. Lin, a retired importer in his 60s who had been inside of the LY the entire time, in charge of recycling. There was Oliver (Rui-Ying) Chen, who had translated for the foreign media and now was working for the Sunflower Movement full-time, and who looked like he had not slept in a long time; Ms. Yeh, an international dance instructor who came via her translator Marie Turner, who had to wait an hour to be interviewed but said, firmly, that she would wait “forever” to tell her story. Ms. Yeh talked about the image she couldn’t forget—of 73-year-old Lin Yi-Hsiung, about to go on a hunger strike that could lead to his death, meeting the younger protest leader, Lin Fei-fan, and patting him on the back, trying to comfort him by saying, “It’s OK”—this was all in Mandarin, with Ms. Yeh pantomiming the back-patting, and Marie Turner listening and starting to cry until she took a breath and translated Ms. Yeh’s statement for me.

There were Betty Apple and Sammy Chien, both famous forces in Taiwan’s contemporary art scene, Betty Apple describing how she held her cell phone above her head and ran from the police, videoing them as an art piece, Sammy trying to help Betty put into the right words the importance of the movement and of art.

There were coffee cups everywhere. There was smoke.

No one wanted to stop talking.

”THE ‘RE-ANIMATION’ OF A NATION”

In July, I returned to the United States. The Sunflower Movement had made the nation pause, for March and April, but then the local news in Taiwan moved onto other topics—in May, a student stabbed and killed several people on a Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train in Taipei; in August, there was a gas explosion in Kaohsiung that killed 25 and injured more than 200; in October, there was a huge food scandal involving cooking oil. People went to work; students went to class.

The country was moving toward an election in November.

In an article in The Diplomat in July 2014, writer J. Michael Cole described the variety of successes in the Sunflower movement. It “re-animated” Taiwan’s population, which he said had been increasingly pessimistic, and will probably lead to activism for years to come. The movement inspired Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement, protests in Hong Kong and Macau.

“There is good reason to believe the successes of the Sunflower Movement have reinvigorated likeminded organizations in the two special administrative regions, (Hong Kong and Macau) if not in China proper,” Cole said. And through the Sunflower Movement, Taiwan was able to clearly demonstrate to Beijing the nation’s opposition to the “one nation, two systems” policy.

On August 23, 2014, the Taipei Times reported that leaders of the Sunflower Movement were touring the U.S., telling members of Congress, the Department of State, and the American Institute of Taiwan that they need to drop the “One China” policy. (These same leaders were denied entry permits to Hong Kong in July).

In the article, student leader Lin Fei-fan told a Washington press conference that the movement was becoming a third political party in the state, that no one in Taiwan wanted to unify with China, and that if President Ma met with Chinese President Xi JinPing, the Sunflower Movement “would not hesitate to take some form of political protest action.”

On November 29, as voters lined up at the ballot box, they answered the call for change. 

[hr style=”striped”]

Karen E. Bender taught creative writing at Tunghai University in Taiwan for the academic year 2013-2014. Her nonfiction about Taiwan has appeared in theatlantic.com and narratively.com. Her story collection, Refund, was just published by Counterpoint Press; visit her at   www.karenebender.com.

Lucie Starr investigates intimacy, stillness and silence through photography. She works as a licensed social worker at a major West Coast hospital when she is in the United States.


Love what you read?
subscribe to print issues

ONE YEAR $6O

This subscription gets you four printed issues of beautiful, lady longform delivered quarterly, starting with our latest issue.

SUBSCRIBE