Interview: Billy Zhe-Wei Lin

Billy Lin is a prominent member of the civic-tech community g0v and open government reporting outlet Watchout, and was a member of Citizen 1985. The following interview was conducted on October 2nd, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  How did you begin to participate in social movements?

Billy Lin:  I should probably start by introducing myself. I stayed in Watchout up until 2014. I later joined the Judicial Reform Foundation. After joining Watchout, I worked as a journalist reporting on the Legislative Yuan. We also spent a great deal of time researching economic policy. And in the Judicial Reform Foundation, I wrote essays and researched regarding this issue. I also wrote about issues such as the Hsu Tzu-chiang case. Now I’m in the Executive Yuan. I hope that through this, I can understand the inside of the system, in order to provide for political change.

I began participating in social movements when I was working in Shanghai as an engineer. When I went to Shanghai, I felt that Taiwan should be open. Why shouldn’t it? The world is like this. But after working in China for awhile, crossing the Great Firewall, and seeing a lot of news that was blocked.

China is an large and powerful country, so it can use its political power to force some companies working in China to erase some materials. Or it make companies accommodate it. This harms freedom of speech and is for the sake of controlling the people, to prevent them from accessing certain information.

Billy Zhe-Wei Lin. Photo credit: 黃友沅/Facebook

After being there for awhile, I came back and saw Sisy Chen’s (陳文茜) program. I thought it was strange, that the China it reported on didn’t seem to be the China that I knew. So I thought, could it be that Taiwanese people look at China from a distance or romanticize it? So I began to write articles, hoping that this could be a way of allowing for more understanding.

The first article I wrote was called “Taiwan Is A Society Led By Conglomerates.” It discussed how Taiwan was being controlled by conglomerates and big business, as well as media and etc. The second piece I wrote was about some issues with Taiwanese culture, that much time was spent in political struggle. Then discuss over the issue of the CSSTA began. Although it looked often seems as though politics and the economics as separate things, China could use economic ability to control companies. Afterwards, it could use these companies to send Taiwanese people’s information to China. I thought the issue was quite a big one, so I wrote several articles.

That was when Citizen 1985 began to organize events. At the demonstration on August 3rd, I brought some friends. Wei Liulin found me and asked me if I was willing to help out. I continued to help out and got to know them. On October 10th in 2013, I was in Shanghai, and I helped out media and information and discourse things like that. They asked me afterwards if I was willing to go back to Taiwan and help them work at Watchout. I wanted to get my employee bonus, so I waited until February 28th, then returned to Taiwan after quitting. After I returned, they wanted to hold a meeting for Citizen 1985. This was on 317 or 316.

Brian Hioe:  Around the time of 120 Hours to Protect Democracy.

Billy Lin:  It was right before that. I still remember that Huang Kuo-Chang advocated not charging in or something. But 1985 still emphasizes that this is very important. There were two people from the Black Island Youth Front there. That was before the rally. After a few days, there was the notion to plan a number of events, and maybe to charge on Thursday or something like that.

But after the rally began, there was a lot of people on-site and the charge began. We were outside and didn’t know, so I rushed back after hearing that this had happened, and went inside. We squeezed inside.

And I remember that when we went in, I had on me an extension chord that I had bought, and a bottle of water. When I got in on the second floor, I threw them both inside to my friends below. I remember that I had a Citizen 1985 flag on me. If I had pulled out that flag, maybe that movement would have been “harvested.” But I forgot. [Laughs] That’s fate. Sometimes if a movement becomes harvested, it falls into the hands of a certain group of people who might not really want to devote themselves to an issue.

As a journalist I went in and out, and took pictures when I could. Later on, I was also with Citizen 1985 people. Because of Watchout, I could write articles quickly and send them to the Apple Daily. So I remember that because of this event, we wrote something up quickly and sent it out.

I think that these reports and articles were pretty helpful for the movement. So my time was mostly writing news on the outside and providing commentary. Because a lot of people felt that the people inside were rioters, we had to figure out how to let people on the outside know that people hadn’t charged in for no reason, but for a good cause.

Watchout interviewed people on the inside of the Legislative Yuan. They could talk very clearly about the issue, unlike politicians on the outside. So everyone felt that this proved the validity of the movement. These were some of our contributions to the movement.

Brian Hioe:  You also participated in g0v. Could you talk about that?

Billy Lin:  I began participating in g0v when I was in Shanghai. The first time, I wasn’t there in person. I participated in person and gave some suggestions. I helped out set up IRC and mostly wrote articles. I wrote an article then about g0v, writing that g0v was a social movement for engineers. As with Watchout, many of the issues you could only figure out once there, such as gathering information, but somebody had to do that.

So the reason why I began participating was because I felt that too few people in Taiwan understood the issue. But because I had more experience due to my work, I thought i could discuss this people, Hoping on the one hand that people could understand this, and on the other hand hoping that there could be more vigilance regarding China.

g0v. Photo credit: g0v

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that your participation in social movements had anything to do with your sense of Taiwanese identity, for example, maybe when you were in China? Or does it return more to what you mentioned, regarding fundamental issues of democracy or human rights.

Billy Lin:  The reason why I would participate is definitely because of my experiences with the CCP in China. And so I think that Taiwanese didn’t understand China enough, like I said, sometimes believing to much in it. So I want to make sure that there was a flow of information about the issue. After gradually participating, I began to discover that this had to do with my sense of values about certain topics as well. Learning as I was doing. I deepened my thinking when I began to write commentary regarding Citizen 1985.

Brian Hioe:  How do you look at the movement overall? I think that the most people probably opposed the black box in the movement and the least amount of people might have been directly opposed to free trade. In the middle may have been people who opposed China or opposed the KMT. What are your views on this?

Billy Lin:  First, I think it has to do with lack of faith in China. Second, the KMT’s way of taking care of these issues added to the lack of faith that already existed. They signed the deal first and tried to push it through the legislature. And then tried to promote this very heavily.

We tried to counter this by collecting opinions from people online and collating these views in order to ask them what they thought. This had a large influence. It became a way for people to know why this issue needed attention. But the KMT’s way of doing this, caused it to become a heated issue. Sort of like now in Catalonia.

Brian Hioe:  In the movement, did you have any views regarding the core decision making group within the Legislative Yuan? Regarding 324 or the decision to withdraw from the Legislative Yuan.

Billy Lin:  Regarding 318, I think the movement breaking out has much to do with Wang Jinpyng and Ma Ying-Jeou having an internal political struggle. This caused Wang Jinpyng to have more space to engage with the movement.

Otherwise the movement may have been like the attempt to storm the Executive Yuan and ended with a quick eviction. When people charged in, they expected to be driven out. Nobody expected to occupy and stay so long.

It was a kind of sudden decision. There was a group of people and they were talking, but after talking, they brought this outside and talked to NGOs. And NGOs would discuss whether they agreed and then looked to see if the people inside agreed. It was going back and forth like this.

Citizen 1985 participated in the NGO decision-making, but if you didn’t attend the meeting, it was quite easy to wonder why it was that group of people making decisions. There were many problems with this process of decision-making.

Social movements, including back to the Wild Lily movement, had this kind of problem regarding attempts to enlarge the decision making mechanism but being unable to correct this. If meetings were held all day, there would be no effectiveness. I can understand the decisions they made then, so I wouldn’t oppose it, but there were some points.

Photo credit: Tinru/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that there is any political orientation to Taiwanese social movements? Because I feel that Taiwanese social movements lean left-wing, regarding many issues, including opposition to the death penalty or support for same-sex marriage.

Billy Lin:   It’s definitely true that most lean left. This is because Taiwanese has been controlled by capitalism too long, with KMT control giving precedent to control by capitalists and big business. This is the same with regards to collaborating with China.

Right now, if you look at the history of the majority of conglomerates in Taiwan, they have a history of collaborating with the KMT.  They all have. So this affects Taiwan’s attitudes towards the government and its relation to business. Including with regards to the DPP and the many businesses affiliated with the DPP.

And so grassroots protests will lean left. This is natural. On the other hand, with regards to Taiwanese independence, there are some who aren’t bad, but there are those who are highly nationalistic and biased towards the Chinese people. I don’t like this too much. I hope more for leaning towards equality and being more left, or valuing gender and sexual equality, and Taiwanese independence on the basis of democratic values.

Some also urge for the overthrow of the ROC system. But in this circumstance, the possibility of a dictatorship emerging, such as in the Philippines or Thailand is possible. What may occur after overturning a colonial government is an authoritarian government. So it goes in the direction of something I can’t accept. There’s another issue is that some of the older generation of social activists lean more towards Taiwanese independence.

But I think that their discourse is quite similar to the KMT. Under these circumstances, you can also see this with regards to human rights activists or lawyers in China, that they would be willing to discard democratic values for the sake of nationalism. I wouldn’t be willing for this to happen. This kind of thought isn’t healthy and could lead to a dictatorship.

Brian Hioe:  To change directions, how do you think the Sunflower Movement has affected Taiwanese politics? Some people discuss this in terms of Tsai Ing-Wen’s election victory or Ko Wen-Je’s election victory. Or the appearance of the Third Force. What are your views on this?

Billy Lin:  I think you can look at an essay I wrote before in which I interviewed Dr. Xu Hairen. He said that most movements look like failures in the short term. Including the Sunflower Movement or the Wild Lily Movement before it. After the movement, when you return to where you were, you find that things don’t seem to have changed as much as you thought. A lot of people will put this energy in what they are able to do.

You see something like Beez appearing in different places. g0v also was strongly affected by this. Some people will start NGOs, or participate in elections, or start working in NGOs. Or use their specialties, such as design, to help out where they can. This can influence Taiwan, including people participating in elections. Including Ko Wen-Je’s victory and Tsai and the DPP’s later victory. These are later effects, so it is slow and gradual in terms of influence. This also can be seen in the rise in individuals advocating Taiwanese independence.

Photo credit: billy1125/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  What are your views on how China looks at the political circumstances in Taiwan after the Sunflower Movement?

Billy Lin:  This returns to what you asked before. I don’t believe that the Sunflower movement opposed free trade, although an element of people opposed free trade. But I think that the Sunflower movement fundamentally opposed China, including Chinese authoritarianism, or the fact that China believes using fear or violence can cause Taiwanese people to obey it. This is the biggest reason. Democratic values.

Brian Hioe:  What do you think Chinese reactions would be? China may continue to try and use economic means to try take control of Taiwan. But China may also realize that it can no longer use economic means to win over Taiwan and so may switch targets in terms of its United Front strategy.

Billy Lin:   China’s main issue is that they are an authoritarian country. And as an authoritarian country, they won’t understand how you, as a democratic country, looks at things. So what it uses is what it can use to control the Chinese people—including buying up a certain economic class, using control of the media to brainwash the masses, or to cause the people at large to care about pleasure but not politics, using political intimidation, or erasing news online to hide information. 

But what the Chinese government can’t understand is that its means of doing things is precisely what causes Taiwan to be wary of it. It feels that using fear can cause people to obey, but this is not persuasive. In Taiwan, the government has to obey the people, not just the people obeying the government.

This is why China is unable to understand why Taiwan reacts badly to what it does. Or maybe some people realize, but this doesn’t change the overall direction of China’s actions. It can’t do anything else. Because they can’t benefit Taiwan, the same way that they can’t benefit their own people.

It’s values are that if there’s money to be made, that’s enough. But Taiwan has been through that in the past. What we want is democracy to decide for ourselves what our future will be.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that there could be another social movement such as the Sunflower Movement in the future?

Billy Lin:   If the government creates a situation similar to 318, in which it wants to pass an agreement without oversight, this could happen. The power still exists and it could be even stronger. The people still have faith in the current government, but the question is how the government looks at the people.

Working in the Executive Yuan, I sometimes see it myself, that officials will feel frustrated as to the people’s demands and not see them as important. But this has gradually changed in the past few years, I believe. The government may try to pull wool over the eyes of the people, but when this is discovered by people, they will be even angrier.

Photo credit: billy1125/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:   Lastly, do you think that the Sunflower Movement can influence international social movements?  Or the international world?

Billy Lin:  I’m not certain how it could influence the international world. At the very least, I know it has influenced Taiwan’s society, and its influence has been very broad. In Citizen 1985, we felt that if everyone felt that going onto the streets was a fashionable thing, if it was safe and fun, sort of like shopping in a night market, this wasn’t bad. But you had to be very sure about what you were hoping to accomplish.

On the other hand, for traditional NGOs, they might feel that this isn’t OK. Because it’s not seriousness about a topic, but just casually participating. Yet this is what draws in many people. It lowers the benchmarks for participating, in order to pushing something. So I’m not sure. There are both sides. I think it lowered the benchmarks for political participation, but it looks like that it’s gradually raised awareness of issues in this way.