Taiwan’s Sunflower Protests: A Q&A with Shelley Rigger

Taiwan’s Sunflower Protests: A Q&A with Shelley Rigger

Yesterday, students ended a three-week occupation of Taiwan’s legislature. To help explain the causes and meaning of the protests, and place them in historical perspective, Jeffrey Wasserstrom speaks with Shelley Rigger, a political scientist, Taiwan expert, and author of Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse.

Students occupying Taiwan's legislature, April 10, 2014 (Artemas Liu/Flickr)

Twenty-five years ago this month, a student-led mass movement began in Beijing that would capture the attention of the world and lend wide recognition to the name “Tiananmen Square,” the site of important Chinese government buildings, revolutionary shrines, and the struggle’s largest rallies. As the quarter-century anniversary of that protest—and the June 4 massacre that crushed it—drew near, it was student-led demonstrations across the Taiwan straits that made headlines. Their main gathering place was in Taipei, where activists occupied not a plaza near official buildings but a government complex itself.

To help explain the causes and meaning of the protests in Taiwan, and how they can best be compared, contrasted, and connected to the famous Chinese struggle of 1989, I’ve turned to Shelley Rigger of Davidson College, a political scientist, Taiwan expert, and author of Why Taiwan Matters: Small Island, Global Powerhouse (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011).

Ed. note: This interview took place before protesters ended their occupation of the legislature yesterday. A number of the issues they raised remain unresolved, and organizers assert that the Sunflower Movement will continue.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: First off, can you give a quick run-down of what triggered the protests in Taipei? What is the main concern or grievance of those who took to the streets and then occupied the Legislative Yuan?

Shelley Rigger: The protesters have substantive grievances, but the catalyst for taking over the legislative chamber was a procedural problem, so let’s start there. The legislature was reviewing an agreement Taiwan had negotiated with Beijing to open trade in services between Taiwan and mainland China (they’re already huge trading partners, but service companies are limited in what they can do). The majority party—the KMT, which also controls the executive branch—had promised to subject the agreement to a line-by-line review. During that process the minority party—the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP—used disruptive tactics to slow things down. On March 18 the KMT legislator in charge of the review lost patience and moved for a vote in the full legislature. That’s when the students stormed into the legislature and blocked the doors. They’ve been there ever since, though as I write this on April 7, there is word that, having secured concessions on some demands, they will be leaving later this week.

In short, the immediate cause of the crisis was the breakdown of the review process the KMT had promised. The students accuse the KMT of overriding the democratic process to ram through legislation. But obviously there’s more to it than that. We need to ask why this particular piece of legislation was so sensitive.

JW: Okay, why exactly did it hit a nerve?

SR: At the heart of the crisis—and given that the students, even if they leave on Thursday, will have spent over three weeks occupying Taiwan’s legislature, it surely qualifies as a crisis—is Taiwanese people’s deep anxiety about their relationship with the People’s Republic of China. The PRC’s position is that Taiwan is part of China, and that it needs to be unified with the PRC politically, one way or another, but no one in Taiwan is eager to see that happen. Taiwanese feel themselves to be a distinct society—many would even say nation—from the PRC, and they don’t want to change their political system or become subject to leadership from Beijing. So they are hypersensitive to moves that seem likely to bring that outcome closer, and trade agreements fall into that category.

JW: Is there more to it than this?

SR: There’s also a substantive critique to be made. The trade in services agreement is the latest in a series of trade pacts between the two sides. Most of them are pretty favorable to Taiwan, on balance, because Beijing is hoping to generate goodwill toward the mainland. Still, they’re like any other trade agreements: they have winners and losers, and the losers tend to be people who are already losing out economically. So while the net result may be positive for Taiwan’s GDP, if most of the benefits go to those who are already wealthy, while the losses accrue to the working class, it makes sense that a lot of Taiwanese would oppose the pacts. But it’s not an open and shut case—even the minority party is not opposed to the agreement, just certain parts of it.

The students occupying the legislature are motivated by all three of these concerns: worries about the KMT using its majority to enact legislation without due deliberation; fear that the PRC will use trade agreements as Trojan horses to influence Taiwan politically; and dissatisfaction with trade policies that hurt the middle and working class.

JW: Why has it come to be called the “Sunflower Movement,” and is that the only name for it?

SR: Taiwan has had a series of student movements since the beginning of its democratization process. In the early 1990s it was the Wild Lily movement. The Wild Lilies built a giant flower, like an Easter lily blossom, to emulate the Goddess of Democracy statue erected in Tiananmen Square in 1989. About ten years ago there was another student movement, the Wild Strawberries. That one was a really clever name: they were referencing the popular stereotype of Taiwanese youth as the “Strawberry Tribe”—nice to look at, but soft and quick to rot. This year’s group is following that same pattern—calling themselves Wild Sunflowers, with the idea that sunflowers represent transparency.

JW: Is the takeover of the Legislative Yuan the most important thing that has happened in the struggle so far? Is it an unprecedented act or something that has happened before? And what’s the symbolic significance of occupying that particular building?

SR: This is a new tactic. Taiwan has seen plenty of demonstrations in the past, but no one has occupied government buildings before. I actually find this development worrying, because it is reinforcing the sense that Taiwan’s democratic institutions are incapable of providing representation and governance. The students are claiming to embody democracy, but in fact it’s not clear how many people agree with them. People admire them, but I’m not convinced their demands have widespread support. The legislators whom they are preventing from working were elected, and the elections were generally clean, fair, and competitive. Maybe people would vote differently today, but if we start down that road of overthrowing elections if we don’t like the results, democracy is in trouble. No outcome would please the PRC more than for Taiwanese to decide that democracy doesn’t work.

JW: Sticking to the chain of events, what stands out to you most so far as surprising or special, whether about the tactics protesters have used, the social composition of the demonstrations, or the way the authorities have responded?

SR: I think it’s extraordinary that this is still going on, and it illustrates the degree to which Taiwanese politicians give deference to student movements. Students are a privileged group in politics—they are assumed to be pure, not motivated by personal gain or ambition. The fact that this crisis has dragged on three weeks might be surprising to people in other countries, where protesters routinely get hauled away after a few hours, but in Taiwan, even people who don’t agree with their goals can admire their conviction. Breaking up the demonstration would be extremely costly to the KMT.

JW: I began with referring to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen protests across the straits, but that may just be because that is on my mind as I’m preparing to take part in upcoming workshops on 1989 (in Ann Arbor and Philadelphia). Are there parallels or links worth thinking about? Are there things that make them radically dissimilar, given such obvious differences as Taiwan being a multiparty state? One thing on my mind are the demonstrations that took place in Taiwan in the wake of the Tiananmen upsurge, which some have argued—most notably Theresa Wright in The Perils of Protest—were related or at least worth placing beside the more famous events that unfolded in Beijing and many other mainland cities in 1989.

SR: One thing that seems very parallel is this special status for students in politics. Back in ’89, the CCP was at great pains to avoid shedding students’ blood, and after the crackdown they spent what seemed to many foreign observers an inordinate amount of effort refuting accusations that students had died. They had no problem admitting the army killed lots of workers and ordinary Beijing residents, but to this day, they deny that student protesters were killed. The reason is that students really are a protected political category.

But obviously, there are limits to what even student protesters can do. We saw that in Taiwan last month when a second group of activists—not coordinated with the first—rushed into executive branch offices near the legislature. Unlike a legislature, which (as we’ve seen in the United States) can be shut down for weeks without easily discernible consequences for society, executive agencies need to function. Those demonstrators were rousted in a hurry, and not gently.

I really doubt the Taiwanese students are paying a lot of attention to the Tiananmen anniversary. For them, the Tiananmen crisis happened in a foreign country. It is a data point helping justify why they don’t want to be annexed to the PRC, but it’s not part of their history or experience. They are fighting for their own future, for their own homeland, which is Taiwan.

JW: Can you tell us what you are keeping an eye on in particular, a move that seems likely by protesters or their opponents, something to be prepared for?

SR: To bring these demonstrations to an end, the students will need to yield. They will need to accept something short of unconditional surrender. The speaker of the legislature has already promised to not allow any more trade agreements to be considered until there is a new law governing the process of making and reviewing those agreements. Will that be enough?

Precisely because the students have this reputation and image as being politically pure, it’s very hard for them to compromise—just as it’s hard for them to participate in electoral politics, even though ultimately that’s what they’ll have to do if they want to change the direction of the political system. If they were doing something on campus or even in a public square downtown, there wouldn’t be any urgency, and they could take their time figuring all this out. But it’s hard not to think they stormed into the legislature without an exit strategy, and that’s scary, because they can’t stay there forever.

JW: It’s obvious that this is important to Taiwan, and to the PRC. Is there any larger resonance to these demonstrations?

SR: To me, what’s really important about these demonstrations—and the debates over PRC-Taiwan economic ties in general—is what they say about globalization and “free trade.”

Taiwan is not that different from other postindustrial democracies. It is suffering from widening income inequality, slow growth, wage stagnation, unemployment, inflated housing prices—all the problems we see in the United States, Europe, Japan. The difference is that it’s very easy for Taiwanese to view these problems as consequences of their dependence on the Chinese economy. Ironically, the existence of a clear political threat allows them to be less blinded than people in other countries by a neoliberal ideology that says these pathologies are inevitable and that there’s nothing governments can do about them. Because China looms so large for them, both economically and politically, they have been able to brush aside the obfuscations and learned helplessness that are immobilizing their counterparts in other countries and demand that their government protect them.

On the other hand, it’s really not China that’s driving Taiwan’s economic malaise—it’s globalization and twenty-first-century capitalism. So I’m not sure that refusing to integrate further with the PRC economy will solve their problems, but I admire them for standing up and saying, “Stop!”

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine and author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

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