Interview: Ho Beng-Ho
Ho Beng-Ho is the secretary-general of the World United Formosans for Independence (WUFI) and a member of Taiwan Radical Wings. The following interview was conducted on October 24th, 2017.
Brian Hioe: How did you first begin participating in social movements?
Ho Beng-Ho: Because I work in in the World United Formosans for Independence (WUFI), if you speak of my beginning to participate in social movements, it’s generally for the same reason. After I began working, I had more time to consider issues regarding Taiwanese independence. And after I had more time to participate in activities, I participated in some reading groups, such as WUFI’s reading group.
WUFI’s full name in Mandarin, directly translated, is the “Taiwanese Independence State-Building Alliance.” What we consider are not only issues of Taiwan’s sovereign independence, but also how to establish a country which is more ideal and accords to our expectations.
I gradually began to participate in some issues and social movements, which, of course, oriented more towards Taiwan’s sovereignty. Later on, up until the Sunflower Movement, I worked up to a certain point as a white collar worker, then started taking individual cases by myself. I had more time and served as assistant secretary-general at WUFI and later had the position I hold now, which is secretary-general. Every week, if I can, I usually spent time here, sometimes working on my own work and sometimes taking care of administrative duty.
So when the Sunflower Movement broke out, it was like this. I would participate in issues that had to do with Taiwan’s nationhood.
Brian Hioe: What were you doing at the time of the Sunflower Movement?
At the time, the DPP had legislators holding a sit-in in front of the Legislative Yuan. Some groups began to organize to do something to express our views. Beforehand, discussing this situation, some groups began to organize, expressing some views, and holding some press conferences, but the KMT kept on pushing for this bill.
World United Formosans for Independence logo. Photo credit: WUFI
On the night of 318, some music performances were held, and at the time, I also was called in to attend these meetings and some groups discussed whether we should do something besides just this. I also probably participated in some student discussions regarding to charge the Legislative Yuan. I more or less knew then that this would happen. They organized different waves to charge. But they charged in during the first wave, so later on, there weren’t other waves.
I was quite pessimistic then. I didn’t think the first wave would get in. Or that the second or third or fourth waves might still not be enough, that we might need to have some image in news reports to demonstrate that Taiwanese people cared about this issue and opposed this.
Brian Hioe: What else did you do then?
Ho Beng-Ho: Quite a lot of things. Because we knew that at 9 PM, there would be the first action. From the two side doors and from the front door, there were some actions planned. And we had some friends who thought that that it was strange there no actions planned for Qunxian Building (群賢樓).
But there was a steel door there, which there was no way to pull down. We thought that we should leave some image behind for the news. So we filled some balloons with ink and water and during the first wave when they charged, we threw the balloons onto the Qunxian Building sign, with the three characters. If you look at the pictures from then, you can probably see the ink in some of the pictures.
And when the students began to charge, I went around, to Qingdao East Road and some people had gotten in. There started to be the need to deliver supplies. I happened to be with some students I knew, so I helped established a site for gathering delivering supplies inside. Later on, some materials gathered in a small square on Qingdao East Road, outside the steel door.
Because of that, because there were a lot of people gathered, and many supplies piled up, because there was a lot of them, the police wanted to clear out the supplies and drive away the people. There was a fence and a sign. Many people were grabbing onto the fence and wanting to see what was going on inside. Because I was guarding the supplies, after arguing with the police, I saw an opportunity and called for people to come over and block the police. Later on, we broke down the steel fence.
And people went inside the courtyard outside the Legislative Yuan. The people inside the courtyard were quite a lot, protecting the people inside the Legislative Yuan. I think it gave the police some pressure. Several times, when the police wanted to drive out the people inside, we gave them some pressure from outside. That was what happened that day.
And later on, like I mentioned, some of our friends had gone inside. I hoped to preserve a space outside to assist them and connect up with them.There were a lot of incidents. Because after 318, there were more and more people. There began to be some demands, such as setting up a stage, and holding speeches with people. Inside the Legislative Yuan, and links with NGOs, there later formed a network of NGO organizations, and so they set up three stages. On Qingdao East Road and Zhongshan South Road, we set up another stage.
On Qingdao East Road, there was a space for Sunflower Movement participants to gather. But our stage wasn’t supported by the other three stages. So we had to find some speakers to discuss our views and things like that. But gradually, apart from going to the occupation site every day and seeing what needed resources and making connections, when there were less people at night and in the morning, we would stay there. Work and rest were sort of collapsed together.
On 324, I didn’t go to the Executive Yuan. But I found some supplies to provide to the people on-site. Because of that, I didn’t go in right away. In the beginning, I wasn’t very clear that there were also people on the inside. Later on, looking at the police surrounding the Executive Yuan, we were behind them, on Beiping East Road.
So we thought that there probably wasn’t anything going on, and we went back to Qingdao East Road before we found out that something had taken place within the Executive Yuan. We only knew that the police were very strongly pushing this. It seemed that Qingdao East Road might even be cleared by the police then. We decided that we would resolve to maintain our occupation even if the police came in with water cannons. But in the end, police didn’t clear that site.
Brian Hioe: Did you have disagreements towards the core decision making body of the movement? Because they didn’t want to discuss Taiwanese independence.
Ho Beng-Ho: Yes. On the one hand, it was like this. I’m not sure if this was the reason, but the channels we had to communicate with these groups were fewer. To speak more specifically, the organizations that were involved in Taiwanese independence or Taiwanese sovereignty issues had more difficulty participating in their decision making process later on. Apart from the Taiwan Association of University Professors, that is. But the Taiwan Association of University Professors was a more center-leaning group to begin with.
As far as I know, before the students were preparing to charge, a lot of times, they would borrow space from the Taiwan Northern Society or the Taiwan Nation Alliance to hold meetings. Or Taiwanese independence groups would help out supplies or resources or space. Including the Alliance of Referendum for Taiwan. But in the decision making later on, Taiwanese independence groups were excluded and those involved in social issues, students, professors involved in social movements, they became the core that were involved in decision-making.
Brian Hioe: What kind of movement do you think this was? Because the most amount of people may have opposed the black box, while the least amount of people opposed free trade, and in between there were those opposed to the KMT and China.
Photo credit: billy1125/Flickr/CC
Ho Beng-Ho: I think it was a sort of perfect storm. This was there and that was there and these different factors were mixed together. Take free trade, for example. Who was pushing for free trade? In Taiwan, it was the KMT at that point. The KMT did many things we were unhappy about. And in that period of time, there was this long-term accumulation. Including many different incidents, including the Hung Chun-Chiu incident, the Miaoli, Dapu incident. A section of the people would have the feeling that it was always the KMT doing these things, so they wanted to disrupt the KMT’s plans for once.
Speaking concretely, for me personally, I have my position regarding Taiwanese sovereignty. So I would definitely have to go and do these things. But probably not many people had as concrete a reason for participating as me, most people probably had more general or unclear reasons for participating. However, you could also say this was a sense of shared collectivity. That the people of this country hope for this. And not for the KMT to do things badly. Or that trade is for the sake of big business, that the rich could sell out the safety of Taiwanese people and our living standards for their own interest. Not hoping that our country would proceed down the path of unification with China. We also hope that this process would be a transparent one.
I think many things were mixed together. But it’s very hard to say. But for those who advocated one issue and so participated in the movement—I think proportionally, this probably was not a lot of people. For example, opposing the black box. Calling for complete transparency. However, at that point, the KMT was in power, and held many seats in legislature. It still had ways to go through a transparent CSSTA to unify Taiwan or China and bring Taiwan and China closer. We would oppose this as well. These few issues are all mixed together and so it’s very hard to look at them apart.
Brian Hioe: What kind of relation to you think that most participants had towards Taiwanese identity?
Ho Beng-Ho: Fundamentally, I believe that most people may not have a very strong sense of participating because of Taiwanese identity. Looking back, you have to ask these people what their political views are. Many people may say that they lean towards independence. This independence may be something we divide between ROC independence or Taiwanese independence and they may not divide between those stances very clearly.
But I believe that if you ask many people then, they may say that they didn’t have a specific position. In reality, I believe that this is why Taiwan is Taiwan. It’s not to say that everyone in Taiwan will immediately say that they advocate Taiwanese independence. Different preconditions will emerge. For example, if there is war, if there is this worsening relation with China, do you want to be independent? They won’t immediately say that, “Yes. I want independence.”
However, I believe that this hits upon their considerations for Taiwan’s future. And I believe that this touches on a collective sense of identity which, in reality, is independent. Sometimes this is not something they realize themselves, but I believe that this is still a individual consideration for Taiwan’s future. That is the reason why they would want to participate in the movement.
Brian Hioe: Do you think that there is any political orientation of Taiwanese social movement participants? Because many people will say that they are left-leaning. And after the Sunflower Movement, there was a lot of talk of “left independence.”
Ho Beng-Ho: Yes. This is something quite interesting. When we think of social movements in Taiwan, we often think that is this is a call to change society. To change society, there needs to be some argument for why this happens, so this may be the claim that this is more progressive, etc. But, to turn towards discussing the present, if we treat social movements as advocating something in society, or a form of advocacy outside the system, in reality, Taiwan has many different social movements including pro-unification movements. [Laughs]
To speak strictly, those less progressive social movements, are lesser in number. This is very realistic. Because if they are conservative, they wouldn’t jump out and try to push for a social movement. Unless they have some organization behind them—such as churches. To turn it around, I believe that those participating in social movements would have to consider beforehand whether what they are advocating is rational and fits the needs of the moment. So I believe that because of this, more will be progressive.
So for us, we are participants in a movement advocating Taiwanese independence and nation-building. It’s also like this with many that participate in the independence movement. Many, after encountering this topic, believe that we further have the need to establish an independent country, to establish a country with a vision of society closer to what we imagine. So if we define politics as between independence and unification, there is much which must be discussed. But, in general, regarding the progressiveness of social issues, I think that this is quite natural.
Brian Hioe: Three years later, how do you think that this movement has influenced Taiwanese politics? Many people discuss this in terms of the election victory of Tsai Ing-Wen or Ko P, or the appearance of the Third Force, for example.
Photo credit: Duke Lin/Flickr/CC
Ho Beng-Ho: These are all definitely the case. At least three years later, before this movement took place, or even then it took place, we were quite pessimistic towards Taiwan. We even didn’t believe that Tsai Ing-Wen would be able to win if she ran, etc. But to turn it around, is this because of this movement’s influence? Or is the movement because of some despair or desire which existed turning that time? I believe that academia can research that.
During that time, Dr. Lai I-Chung, wrote some things which are quite interesting. At time time, people felt that Ma Ying-Jeou could play around with Taiwanese domestic politics, including his conflict with Wang Jinpyng, and that everything under the KMT was controlled by him. And that with China, he had already established a connection, through which he could garner Chinese support, he could maintain his political position. And that what was crucial for him was to annex Taiwan to China. If China was successful in annexing Taiwan or that if China decided to take some action….it’s hard to imagine now, but we were quite pessimistic then.
But the movement delayed these things. Ma Ying-jeou tried some things later, including continuing to conflict with Wang Jinpyng. China still later had a meeting between Ma and Xi Jinping. But the effect of these events were different, because they occurred at a later time.
So Lai I-Chung’s view is that this was the delayed effect of the Sunflower Movement. There were some aftereffects which were larger than we thought, looking back. This effect might be quite large in Taiwan. But outside of Taiwan, nobody thought that this was big.
Likewise, for Taiwan’s local consciousness, the movement was the discovery that we could succeed in confronting the KMT. This confidence booster was also quite significant. For example, during that period of time, despite the growth of a lot of social movements, what we thought was that, despite Chen Wei-Ting throwing his shoe at Liu, Liu could still be reelected.
But because of this confidence boost, this strong mobilization, and because of the relative weakening of the pro-unification forces—which originally thought that they could smoothly achieve unification—the pro-unification forces were stopped. I think this happened.
Brian Hioe: Do you think this raised discussion of Taiwanese independence?
Ho Beng-Ho: I think there was. Not because the movement participants advocated this, necessarily. Many movement participants would say that they didn’t participate in the movement because of this position of supporting Taiwanese independence.
But after such a big incident, people would begin to think about Taiwan’s future. I do believe that this affects how movement participants think about Taiwan. So I would believe that at the very least, this aspect of not wanting unification with China, this would become stronger.
Would this deepen to become consideration of what to do next? Not necessarily. But if not wanting unification with China is a step towards the direction of independence, definitely so.
Brian Hioe: What do you think social movement participants are doing now, three years later? Some have entered government. Others may have returned to what they were doing before. There are also some new political forces that have appeared, such as the Third Force, or including Taiwan Radical Party.
Ho Beng-Ho: Of course, many people still have to move on with their lives, so they had to continue to work. But I encountered some who told me that because of the Sunflower Movement , they began to want to work in politics, or wanted to consider what to do next—including those who joined the Radical Party.
Some may have encountered the Radical Party on-site. Or they may have started to think about issues and looked for information and seen what different groups were saying and identified with one party more than another. Either way, participation in politics or the independence movement has increased in number.
Brian Hioe: How do you think China looks at the current political circumstances in Taiwan?
Ho Beng-Ho: I don’t understand China’s thinking too well. But I think at the very beginning, they couldn’t understand too well what had taken place. Taiwanese people may not understand it so well up to now either. We also don’t know what kind of effects this will have historically.
But I think that they have not understood why this movement would form and, after it formed, what kind of effects this would have on the minds or the consideration of Taiwanese. This may be something that they can’t understand or have no way to control.
I don’t think they have any way to address this. They still use older methods to try and address Taiwan. For example, they continue to use United Front means, and they try to provide things for young people, such as raising salaries or conducting youth exchanges. I think it’s a cycle. But for China, leaning on these methods can’t achieve what they want to with regards to influencing Taiwanese people.
Brian Hioe: Do you think that there ever could be a social movement like the Sunflower Movement in the future in Taiwan?
Ho Beng-Ho: I hope not! [Laughs] Because the Sunflower Movement was a perfect storm. There were too many things which should not have happened which led to it, and it accumulated too many of our grievances for it to happen.
I hope that Taiwan doesn’t have this future, in which there are so many grievances and for so many things which not happen do happen. I also hope that, in the future, governments will consider keep the movement in mind. For this to be a lesson for governments is also a good thing. I hope that they learn will from this so that this doesn’t happen again.
Photo credit: billy1125/Flickr/CC
Brian Hioe: Lastly, do you think that the Sunflower Movement can influence the international world? Or international social movements?
Ho Beng-Ho: If we’re talking about social movements, I’m not sure. Whether independence movements or separatist movements or political advocacy, to my understanding, many international social movements are more progressive or take more drastic action than takes place in Taiwan.
Like what you asked regarding decision makers during the Sunflower Movement, I don’t think that they necessarily understood the meaning of these actions. A country’s legislature was occupied by students. To put it straightforwardly, this can tell everyone that we don’t believe in this legislature. And if we don’t believe in this government, then this government system has issues. The most system-based method may be to dissolve the legislature. And because everyone opposes what these legislators decided and charged into the Legislative Yuan, having reelections could take place.
I think that international social movement participants consider more the meaning of their actions, so when they do something, no matter whether this is from the perspective of civil disobedience or to reform of the government system, they can take stronger forms of actions or actions more suited to their demands. So they have a relatively stronger actions.
But in consideration of how large China is and how small Taiwan is, to say no to China can still influence people across the world that consider political issues or social movement participants. There will be people that think that standing up is necessary. I believe that there will be people such as Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement—I wouldn’t say that there’s shared influence—but that this can do is tell people that in confronting such a large force, what people will still do is resist.
As for influence on international society, I think it returns to what I mentioned regarding what Dr. Lai I-Chung argues, concerning delayed effect. At the time, there definitely was the view in the international world that we were leaning towards China. And that China would be able to annex Taiwan.
So I think there will be influence. For the international world, the movement has successfully demonstrated that Taiwanese don’t want to become part of China, that we want to maintain our distance, no matter whether countries more likely to support us—such as America or Japan—or other countries, are looking on.
When Ma Ying-Jeou was elected, much international media thought that represented leaning towards unification, even though Ma Ying-Jeou claimed that he just wanted to maintain the economy. After Tsai Ing-Wen’s victory, international media felt that this represented leaning towards independence, even though Tsai Ing-Wen may not have said this. At least for the international world, watching Taiwan’s international situation, there has been a change.