Interview: Edward Yen-Ting Liu
Edward Yen-Ting Liu is currently a Ph. D student in the Department of Social Work at Rutgers University. He is also one of the lead organizers of Philosophy Fridays in New York City and a member of New Bloom. The following interview was conducted on September 20th, 2017.
Brian Hioe: What I want to ask first is, how did you begin participating in social movements?
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: In 2012, I came to America during the start of the anti-media monopoly movement. I didn’t know Wen Liu back then. It was a group of Taiwanese students in New York City and began to organize solidarity activities for the anti-media monopoly movement. That wasn’t my first time participating in social movements, but that was how I began to participate in social movements in America. And then there were other causes I participated in afterwards, such as supporting marriage equality or other issues, up until the Sunflower Movement.
Brian Hioe: What were you doing around 318? Because you began to organize events, such as Cafe Philo, in New York City.
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: At the time of 318, that was when I first met Wen Liu. She asked on the Internet if we wanted to organize a solidarity activity for what was going on in Taiwan, so I went with the others to her house to make posters and help organize events. At that time, I was still studying for my MA at Columbia. After the end of the movement, in the summer of 2014, we began to organize Cafe Philo in New York City.
Photo credit: Cafe Philo@NYC
Brian Hioe: How would you explain your participation in Cafe Philo? It’s quite large, since it takes place every week. Why did you begin to organize Cafe Philo?
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: We didn’t realize in the beginning that Cafe Philo would become like it is now. We originally thought we could hold it once a month. Because we didn’t have a lot of participants or volunteers in the beginning. There was only about twenty people. From twenty people, it started to build up over time.
Originally, the issue was finding space. Up to now, it’s worked because we’ve gotten to know more and more people, and we have a set space in which we can hold events. More or less, ever week, there’s an event. Fundamentally, there’s still a lot of support for organizing in the grassroots in New York. Taiwanese overseas students interested in social movements wanted to do something and Cafe Philo may have been a way to do that. To allow every to have a place to reflect on events and do what they could.
Brian Hioe: Regarding the Sunflower Movement, what kind of events were held in New York? I know there was a mobilization for 330.
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: Yes. I remember we first organized a solidarity activity for 318. On 330, the Taiwan Center and some artists wanted to organize an event, and so Wen and us went to help. There were two times in NYC, but 330 was the largest. I remember afterwards, during the summer, Overseas Taiwanese for Democracy was also formed. Through OTD, we got to know those in northeast America who were interested in social movements, and connect together quite quickly. I feel these sorts of influences come in waves.
Brian Hioe: What kind of thoughts do you have regarding the influence of overseas students? Maybe regarding on Taiwan or regarding the international world.
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: I think overseas students interested in social movements may later return to Taiwan. Or if they don’t return to Taiwan, they might want to connect with people doing things like advocacy work for Tibet, or to connect with civil society. These are things that could benefit Taiwan in the future. There are some connections in New York with the second-generation of Taiwanese-Americans.
This can aid Taiwan’s democracy and civil society and that the networks established by overseas students can eventually benefit Taiwan. Working on social movements abroad, there’s still a sense of accomplishment, and there are some groups such as the Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) or political organizations that will reach out to us. After the establishment of our network, those of us abroad involved in social movements have also developed, you could say, or learned new things.
Brian Hioe: From a distance, how do you think people looked at events taking place in Taiwan? There were a lot of divides regarding views of 324 or the decision to withdraw from the Legislative Yuan.
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: [Laughs] My personal view is that there’s an information lag between people on-site and people abroad. Taiwanese-Americans, as well, had a different view of the Sunflower movement than Taiwanese overseas students. That included regarding the decision to withdraw. I talked with some friends at the time, because I also am someone that organizes events, I can understand the sense of exhaustion that led to the decision to withdraw, in spite of everyone continuing to feel passionate about the issue. For me, I think that was a good time to withdraw. Because if you couldn’t find a time to bow out, that could lead to failed results for the movement. So I didn’t disagree with the withdrawal. But I also know that other people felt that more could be done before a withdrawal. I feel okay about it personally.
Edward Yen-Ting Liu handing out flyers for Cafe Philo at the yearly Passport to Taiwan event in New York City. Photo credit: Cafe Philo@NYC
Regarding Taiwanese-Americans, I talked with some Taiwanese-Americans after. Obviously, they aren’t reflective of all Taiwanese-Americans, but some Taiwanese-Americans looked at the Sunflower movement as a demonstration against the KMT. They wouldn’t really understand about the items of the CSSTA and the contents of the CSSTA. They just understood that they were demonstrating against the KMT and those Taiwanese-Americans interested in social movements, primarily had parents or grandparents who settled in America because they were exiled as a result of the political blacklist. Their views and those of Taiwanese overseas students who had just come to America were not exactly the same. I remember that someone told me that they didn’t know what they were really opposing, just that the KMT government was bad, so they were opposing it.
Brian Hioe: To shift directions, I want to ask about Taiwanese identification. Do you feel that your participation in Taiwanese social movements has to do with your sense of Taiwanese identity? Because what is interesting to me is that a lot of overseas students tell me that their sense of Taiwanese identity strengthened when they were abroad, which is why they began to participate in social movements, sometimes because the Sunflower Movement occurred while they were abroad. Or what your views of the people around you with regard to that are.
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: I feel that working on Taiwanese social movements abroad, I think its looking for a form of expression. Like what I said earlier. You would want to do something for Taiwan. And you were abroad. So what could you do? I think when a lot of overseas students begin participating in social movements, they have that feelings of wanting to do something for Taiwan, but being unsure of what you should do. So the hope becomes to participate in social movements as a way to allow the international community to pay more attention to these issues. I and Wen are based in New York, for example.
A lot of media is based here. And a lot of resources are concentrated here. Compared to other places in America, New York has more resources. So organizing events related to Taiwan here are more easily noticed. NBC has some reporters who regularly report on Taiwan-related topics, for example. When we established this network, sometimes we could just tell them, and they would write on the issue. On some level, we also hoped that Taiwan’s situation is noticed by the international world, and that we could correct international misperceptions of Taiwan. This may be what Taiwanese overseas students that are social movement participants hope to accomplish. I think that through participating, we’ve seen some results, and everyone is willing to continue.
Brian Hioe: From your perspective, what do you think the Sunflower Movement was opposed to? Maybe the most people were opposed to the black box and the least amount of people opposed to free trade. But in the middle are people opposed to the KMT or China. Why do you think most people were opposed to the CSSTA?
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: From what I read then, I think it’s like how you described. When people began opposing the CSSTA, it was a sense of fighting back. You would feel that they used such means without transparency to pass the CSSTA, and the advantages of many industries would be siphoned away to China. And we didn’t feel that those benefits would return to Taiwan. Because this was a matter of free trade, social inequalities would also be accentuated, allowing large companies and conglomerates to earn more money and that Taiwan’s weaker industries would not be protected, and this would strengthen the ability of Chinese industries to enter Taiwan.
Furthermore, because the process of passing this was undemocratic and this has been discovered, this would cause many people to stand up because the process was not very open. This circumstance actually reduced the aspect of opposing the KMT and led to more mass participation.
From my own perspective, what I think I would concern myself with is, apart from the lack of democracy is, why would you want Taiwan to become a more unequal society and allow for restrictions on personal freedoms and freedom of speech through Chinese influence? Because I study social policy and social welfare and am further left in the Taiwanese political spectrum, that would come into conflict with my beliefs, so I not only do not support this, but I would want to stand up for that reason. But I know these beliefs may not be the same as other people.
It was a situation I didn’t want to see, particularly because it was a trade deal with China. For example, if a free trade deal was signed between Taiwan and New Zealand and everyone discussed carefully what effects this would have, I might be more open to discussing this. But there are various complicated elements that enter with regards to China, which would add to my sense of opposition.
Photo credit: Cafe Philo@NYC
Brian Hioe: How would you understand the political tendencies of Taiwan’s social movements? Because Taiwanese social movements tend to lean more left-wing. And are more progressive regarding many issues, ranging from opposition to the death penalty to support for same-sex marriage. Very few people would say they are right-wing, but I don’t always know why everyone says they are left-wing.
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: I don’t know if I would speak of this in terms of left or right. It’s definitely true that Taiwanese society at present is highly conservative. When social movements advance ideals, they have to stand on a more liberal or left basis, or one which is less conservative anyhow, in order to confront the system and call for the system to move in the direction of a more ideal society. Rather than society becoming more and more conservative and the government becoming more and more conservative, or that once a non-conservative government is elected it becomes more and more conservative. This is all possible.
Grassroots participants in Taiwanese social movements are less likely to pursue conservative beliefs. But I believe that in these past few years, it’s not exactly the same. Opposition to pension reform has used the means developed by Taiwanese social movement participants to assert their extremely conservative values, for example. This is also true of those opposed to same-sex marriage. This is also a form of social movement. Just that we would oppose their social movement. And so social movements, as with electoral politics, there are two forces contending with each other. But it is correct that those who begin from the grassroots and are longer-term participants in social movements are more politically left.
Brian Hioe: Three years later, what kind of influence do you think the movement has had? Some people will discuss this in terms of the election victory of Ko Wen-je or Tsai Ing-Wen, or the appearance of the Third Force. What is your view? And what do you think that social movement participants are doing now, three years later?
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: [Laughs] It is definitely true that you will come to know some people who have taken political office. Such as the New Power Party, or Lin Fei-Fan and Chen Wei-Ting and them forming a political party. A lot of those who were in the spotlight during the movement are now participants in the political system. To some respect, the DPP has absorbed the results of the movement. I don’t think it’s like people say regarding the NPP, because they just happen to be those in social movement circles who have more political results. The DPP has even larger results, but people don’t snipe at them. It’s somewhat strange.
But I also see another group of people. Because many of those involved in Taiwan-related social movements overseas are overseas students, I know many of those studying their Ph. Ds have continued to progress in academia. Yet in this process, I think the Sunflower Movement has made the liberal voices among overseas students louder. Before the Sunflower Movement, people would not openly state their beliefs or ideology, or openly discuss these things.
If they said their views openly, it was probably that they were arguing with the KMT. [Laughs] But after the Sunflower movement, people are more willing to talk openly and these voices have become more mainstream. As they have become more mainstream, I think that more people will devote more energy in their academic research to discussing issues which return to Taiwan. That’s my perspective. For example, more people will consider whether to return to Taiwan. The lure of going to Taiwan and working on things is quite attractive.
Brian Hioe: Do you think that there could be another social movement like the Sunflower movement in Taiwan?
Photo credit: Cafe Philo@NYC
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: I think it might happen. But I hope it’s not demonstrating against the KMT again! [Laughs] Or a extremely far-right wing and conservative party like the KMT. I think it may happen again, but I don’t know when. I don’t think it will happen under the Tsai administration again, although everyone talks about it this way. Who knows what kind of circumstances will appear? It’s definite that the DPP is becoming more and more conservative.
But as for this the momentum, I can’t see currently whether it would occur again in the short-term. When you look at events such as the Red Shirt Army under Chen Shui-Bian in 2007 and 2008, then another event taking place in eight years, it’s very hard to say what will happen next.
I can’t see it now. What would the trigger would be? Over what topic? Maybe it would, like in the past few years, nobody knew that there would be a movement as large as the Sunflower Movement to oppose the CSSTA. Before 318, you could see that the strength of social movements was growing, though. Like with Wei-Ting and their actions. Or the Dapu incident. That the KMT was going about business so smoothly, people were becoming very anxious. But I think social movement participants have some hopes regarding anxiety regarding the DPP from the people.
On the other side, those who adamantly oppose the DPP are very conservative, and they are not those who society would come to fear, such as those opposed to pension reform or same-sex marriage. They don’t have strong social identification either, so they couldn’t organize an event on the scale of the Sunflower Movement either.
Brian Hioe: How do you think China looks at the political development following the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan?
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: They are probably quite afraid. In the past, I talked to some Chinese overseas students, some of which had worked in United Front work departments. They said that they felt they had done a bad job. Actually, every province in China has a United Front work department which targets China. They said that when they saw the Sunflower movement take place and the strengthening of Taiwanese identity, China was probably quite nervous. But they haven’t found leverage to do more at present.
They thought using economic means could buy up Taiwan, but after the Sunflower Movement take place, they realized that the people they had bought up were very conservative in society and have declined strength. Regarding public opinion of China in Taiwan, China doesn’t seem sure of what to do now. Which may be why they would arrest Lee Ming-Che as a way to threaten the Third Force or social movement participants.
The arrest of Lee Ming-Che may be an attempt at intimidation. I don’t know what they will do in the future, but I do think that the Sunflower Movement marks the failure of their past United Front efforts up to this point and they need to think of a new strategy. We need a new strategy to prevent or counteract that ourselves, too.
Photo credit: Cafe Philo@NYC
Brian Hioe: The last question I want to ask is, do you think the Sunflower movement can influence international social movements?
Edward Yen-Ting Liu: I think the Sunflower Movement has influenced the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong. And, in turn, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement has influenced international social movements. [Laughs] I think there has been influence. Occupy movements were on the rise a few years ago, as we saw with Occupy Wall Street, and the Indignados movement in Spain.
I remember when I presented on the Sunflower Movement at Columbia—because I work on social inequality—somebody from Spain approached me and was very interested in learning more about the Sunflower movement because of comparisons to Spain. That’s an example, So I think it’s mutually learning from each other. In this respect, the Sunflower Movement definitely has had an impact in the international world for those who are involved in social movements. There would be influence on Hong Kong and the Asia Pacific region overall.