Interview: Na Su-Phok
Na Su-Phok was the owner of Cafe Backstage, and one of the original organizers of the Gongsheng Music Festival. The following interview was conducted on September 16th, 2017.
Brian Hioe: So the first question I wanted to ask is, how did you first begin participating in social movements? What kind of causes did you participate in and why?
Na Su-Phok: There’s a difference between people like myself and the Sunflower generation. A difference in age of about five to ten years. So you can say that our participation in social movements is quite early, because we came to know Su Beng in 2006 and in 2008 participated in the Wild Strawberry movement. There were already many people that participated in social movements then, just there’s been a transformation.
The Wild Strawberry movement, or sometimes the “1106 Action”, is more like something which happened as a contingent event after Ma Ying-Jeou took power. I feel that what is more significant is what happened in the 2010s, including the protests against the Kuokuang naphtha cracker, the Shilin Wang family incident, and land evictions in Dapu, and social events that led to continued participation.
My personal participation might be simpler. In 2013 and 2014, I had a period in my life in which I had a great deal of free time, and I worked with others to open a business. So from 2013 to 2017, I opened a coffeeshop, Cafe Backstage. Cafe Backstage was a place where students gathered. It was a place for people to gather, such as researchers of Taiwanese history or literature, members of the Independent Youth Front (獨立青年陣線), which connected students such as students from Yangming or Tung Hwa. Outside of this, we also worked on Gongsheng Music Festival in those years, so Cafe Backstage was a gathering place for a group of people. Were we an organization? You can’t really say that we were, or that we were a proper NGO, but comparatively speaking, this group of people had a mobilization capacity.
When 318 broke out, it wasn’t surprising that we were participants. It was an event which came out of a continuous series of events in which we had been active. It was an event which was more totalizing and had greater influence. Overall, our participation in social movements had been a contingent event, from meeting to Su Beng, and participating in the Wild Strawberry Movement.
But participating in the Sunflower Movement, you could say that our direct cause for participation was that we were in Taipei, and we were part of the same networks. So when the Sunflower Movement began, I was the manager of a coffee shop.
Photo credit: Cafe Backstage
Brian Hioe: What kind of things did you do in the Sunflower Movement? For example, I remember that Cafe Backstage organized some events during the Sunflower Movement. I remember there was an event in which Erik Ollin Wright gave a talk.
Na Su-Phok: Discussing what we did in the Sunflower Movement, we can maybe begin with the structural and organizational basis of the Sunflower Movement. Or how the networks behind it formed. Some people draw a sharp boundary between the Sunflower Movement and what came before, but I feel that the boundary is not very clear.
There were large structural changes between the 2008 Wild Strawberry Movement in terms of how it mobilized and the Sunflower Movement in 2014. With the Wild Strawberry movement, people were attracted by messages on PTT and came to participate individually. But after 2008, different local organizations began to appear, such as the 02 Society in Tainan (台南零貳社), or the Black Forest (黑森林) in Taichung. Different social movement groups, that is.
So it’s a question of what organizations participated in the Sunflower Movement. Sometimes we talk about it in terms of the so-called leaders. But were there really leaders in the Sunflower Movement? Or we can ask whether there was a mechanism that produced leaders in social movements before the Sunflower Movement? This is something that many people are not willing to seriously discuss.
My view is that before the Sunflower Movement or after the Sunflower Movement, in reality, there aren’t student movement leaders. Student leaders are something created by the media. From the Wild Strawberry afterwards, to the anti-Kuokuang movement, or to Dapu, Miaoli, this was more like a process of alliances being formed between organizations regarding certain issues and dividing labor to work on things.
Up to the Sunflower Movement, because of the media, this was perceived as leadership by a small group of hero figures. But you can’t stay that. So it might not be a question of how I participated in the Sunflower Movement, but like what i said before, how I was connected with the space at Cafe Backstage and the different groups that gathered there, and that through that network, I became connected with people in art and culture industry, and this became a mobilization network in which people would ask us to help out or help take care of things when events took place.
This didn’t begin in the Sunflower Movement, but in the anti-media monopoly movement, the anti-Kuokuang movement, the Dapu, Miaoli incident, etc. It’s something which led to continuous mobilizations. In the process of the Sunflower Movement, what I did was help organize the events that Cafe Backstage held, sometimes delivering coffee to the Legislative Yuan encampment, but these are smaller things. More importantly may be with the Department of Social Sciences at NTU, with the first day being outside the Legislative Yuan, the second day inside the Legislative Yuan, and the third day at the department of humanities, helping manage traffic on-site, and then later on participating in the 323 and 324 incident.
So towards participating in the Sunflower Movement, I feel that this led to large changes in my life. Looking back and comparing the Sunflower movement to the Wild Strawberry movement or Wild Lily movement, oftentimes, this is comparing examples. One sees certain phenomena seem to continue to appear, such as so-called student leaders in relation to the Wild Lily movement. But are there similarities in how we talk about student leaders now? I feel that the experience of participating in the Sunflower Movement is sort of like a comparison with Taiwanese history or a certain experience in one’s life. Looking back, reflecting on it, I’ll think about that.
Brian Hioe: Can we talk a bit about the Department of Social Sciences? I was one of those who charged on 324, for example, and I had been there, but I wasn’t very sure how the department of social sciences formed. I knew that the idea was to establish a space outside of the Legislative Yuan to hold meetings.
Na Su-Phok: The department of social sciences was in some way accidental. This is because when it began, Lin Chuan-Kai and others wanted to form a space that protesters could rest in, to take showers in, and rest, and sleep, and then return to go back and protest. But it led to an issue was that there were difficulties in communicating with inside the Legislative Yuan. The Internet had too much connection issues in the Legislative Yuan.
Photo credit: Cafe Backstage
So students in the Department of Social Sciences group started to think about whether a way to resolve this. Some were students that studied there. And so people began to think could use that space to connect to the Internet and serve a space for assembly. So they went into the department of humanities and, apart from a space to rest, they formed another front. This was an accident.
When I went in, it was already like this. You can also talk about how this space came into conflict with those inside the Legislative Yuan. You can that this was contingent or that it probably would have happened. In the process of the movement, if there’s not shared faith, and there are two systems, they probably will start to doubt each other. But in terms of technical matters, this was very successful. Because the Legislative Yuan was cut off from the outside world and there was a need to defend the occupation, but there were no such issues with the department of humanities.
That also raises the issue of whether during large-scale protests, you need another base in order to do those things. That’s worth discussing further. But during the movement itself, this led to conflict between the individuals in the Legislative Yuan and those gathered around the department of humanities. This also has the contradiction of that between these groups, this wasn’t the first time they had worked together, from 2011 until then, including the so-called leaders within the Legislative Yuan.
Despite that we worked together, there wasn’t mutual trust. I think that may be the most ridiculous part of the movement. Why after working together for two or three years, when we actually encountered a large-scale event, trust broke down. This was in regards to not only decisions made during the movement but also evaluations of the state of the movement.
Na Su-Phok: It’s still not actually very clear whether it was Citizen 1985 responsible for traffic direction in the movement. But the department of humanities opposed traffic direction of the encampment in the manner of Citizen 1985. I was responsible for that in the Department of Social Sciences group, so I can very clearly state that, we didn’t want traffic direction in the manner of Citizen 1985.
That would directing people, or telling the people what they should do, saying that you can do this and you can’t do that, or that you can’t stand here, or that you should stop here. So within this system, our conflict is that we didn’t believe movements should be centrally collectivized in this manner, you could say. This was a point of conflict.
Na Su-Phok: I think 323 and 324 was more of an accident, as you can see in Lin Chuankai’s report on the matter. You can see that the department of humanities was anxious about this event, that they felt that if nothing happened over the weekend, the movement might stall. So the original plan was to occupy the whole of the Legislative Yuan, not just the assembly chambers, but because of things happened, the plan suddenly changed to trying to occupy the Executive Yuan.
And this exploded. That’s the simplest way of explaining it, because the original plan was not to occupy the Executive Yuan. That was only decided 2 or 3 hours before the event took place.
Brian Hioe: Can you discuss about matters you might have disagreed on with the core decision making body within the Legislative Yuan?
Na Su-Phok: I think it’s worth considering what exactly was the core decision making body within the Legislative Yuan. There were already logical errors in the view that there was a core decision making body. Sometimes who was holding the microphone would be judged by the media to be a representative or a leader. Were these decision makers actually reflective of the views of the students? I think this is worth discussing.
I don’t believe that the views of the decision makers were all from students. Some views came from NGOs and we can also say that this movement wasn’t in itself a student movement. But the role played by the decision making body are worth discussing. Regarding the conflict we had with the core decision making body, where did this come from? This came from that our evaluation of the situation was different. Information did not always circulate at the same speed.
Who can be put in the decision making body? Who can understand how much? Who can facilitate operations? This can be divided into two articles. Practical matters, such as supplies, or traffic direction, this consisted once system. Another system was regarding policy or political matters. One of the biggest problems with the Sunflower Movement was, in some sense, that these two could never be divided. These were connected. So the same group of people had to take care of practical needs as well as political matters. Whether this was NGOs or students, this was hard to parse out.
I don’t think the conflict that we came into with the decision makers can be summed through any single matter. But you can also look it as that it wasn’t that a certain group of people had differing opinions or was receiving different information, and so constructed a different system at the department of social of sciences. Structurally that was what took place.
In terms of events, this may have been the pressure of time. We were on the outside. We were always looking at how many people were gathered outside daily or during the rallies at night and which direction the movement was heading in. These were the pressure we faced on the outside. This was different from inside.
Brian Hioe: How do you feel that Taiwanese identification has to do with your participation in social movements, including the Sunflower Movement?
Looking into Cafe Backstage. Photo credit: Cafe Backstage
Na Su-Phok: I think you can put it this way. This generation of pro-Taiwan young people would all go and participate in the Sunflower Movement. But the participants of the Sunflower Movement aren’t necessarily pro-Taiwan young people.
After the Sunflower Movement, sentiments of “natural independence” have been on the rise, because consciousness or ideology needs to be confirmed through action in order to give proof of one’s sense of identification. And the Sunflower Movement did this for a generation of Taiwanese young people in terms of wanting to preserve a sense of distance from China. I don’t think that’s completely definite, but it’s something they put in their hearts.
With the older generation, such as us, they naturally have a “Yes” towards China. You might not accept China, but you don’t have the capacity to resist China. The Sunflower generation allows a generation of young people to directly confront China, with a “No” in their hearts. Whether their “Yes” is for Taiwan or for the Republic of China is another matter, such as the issue of ROC independence and Taiwanese independence. But at least that have a doubt towards China. This is a fundamental factor in the Sunflower Movement.
Brian Hioe: How do you understand the relation of the movement towards the KMT and towards China, in that case? Because most people may oppose the black box process.
Na Su-Phok: I think I can raise an example. On the second day of the movement, I was talking with Lin Fei-Fan and Chen Wei-Ting. I said, if you go outside and look around, you’ll see that opening up connections between the inside and outside is very easy and the police won’t offer any resistance. There were 30,000 people outside.
Chen Wei-Ting went outside later on, but Lin Fei-Fan didn’t. This was a major factor in how they evaluated things. Lin Fei-Fan was very conservative in the movement. More conservative than conservative. Why? Because when Chen Wei-Ting went outside, the DPP legislator watching the exit was Tuan Yi-Kang. I went to talk to him, and said to him that, “When you give speeches, you often ask people, ‘Does everybody oppose the textbooks? Does everybody oppose land appropriations? Does everybody oppose the Kuokuang naphtha cracker?’ You always ask if people oppose these things. And you discover that when you ask everyone, the number of people that raise their hands is very high.”
I have never believed that social movements are completely rational. Social movements are a matter of emotions, feelings, and atmosphere. This is automatic and oftentimes involves anger. Because you are angry, you take to the streets. You think something is wrong, so you stand out. Everyone feels it is wrong, so they stand out. This kind of collective atmosphere. If you ask on the streets, do these people really understand free trade? Do these people understand how free trade influences them?
But the theoretical capacity of the people to understand is insufficient. You’ll discover that the Sunflower Movement was perhaps the accumulation of eight years of anger against Ma Ying-Jeou’s pro-China policies. The majority of the people do not put their faith in this. And is this really a vote against free trade? Do Taiwanese people really oppose free trade? I think probably not.
What Taiwanese oppose is free trade conducted under conditions set by the KMT and China. I think this is what people oppose. Everyone knows that they don’t want to play the game under the rules set by them.
Brian Hioe: How would you explain the political orientation of Taiwanese social movements? Because I feel that Taiwanese social movements still lean more leftwards. We can discuss this with regard to free trade or things like that, but also regarding many issues such as opposition to the death penalty and support of gay marriage.
Na Su-Phok: I think one cannot deny that many people are left, but they say so primarily on Facebook. The notion of “rioters”, for example, did not exist in 2008. We just called ourselves left groups then. Why did social movements come to become a social sphere, in some sense? The formation of this and expansion of this has to do with the development of social media. These is very important to note.
Because this is more like a result, rather than a cause, can social media actually create a real political force? I am unsure. Social issues or movements and political parties are inherently different. Social movement groups face the issue of that they tend to split when confronted with different issues, sometimes this leads to personal conflicts. This is a difficulty. But despite that we have differences, when confronted with issues, we still work together, so this is why social movement groups lean left or are progressive. As to whether social movement groups can positively impact the world in the long-term, that is still a question.
Talk held at Cafe Backstage. Photo credit: Cafe Backstage
Brian Hioe: Three years later, how do you think that the Sunflower Movement has influenced Taiwanese politics? Most people talk about Ko P winning the mayoral election or Tsai Ing-Wen winning the presidential election. But apart from that, what other influences would you point towards?
Na Su-Phok: I think three years later, looking at this event, we can’t point to a definite influence. For example, at what came out of the Wild Lily movement, can you say that it gave us Fan Yun? So this is an event. Towards Taiwanese society, it definitely had an influence. But in discussing or researching an event, what is most difficult to discuss is direct influence. For example, maybe some of this group of people will work in politics or become politicians or become authors or, like you, as a journalist.
Can you say this influence? I think you can say so. But you can also say that it’s not just this. So at the very least, towards Taiwanese politics or Taiwanese society, it had an influence. Put most simply, I believe, like I said, that this has confirmed Taiwanese identity for a generation of Taiwanese young people, a decision to say, “Yes”, to Taiwan. Not everyone may be as politically invested as us, but for a group of young people, this has had some influence, that they will put a question mark next to China.
Brian Hioe: What do you think social movement activists are doing now? Like we discussed, some people are now within the system. We can also see that now there are less people demonstrating on the streets.
Na Su-Phok: I think you can put it this way. You asked in the beginning about the influence of the Sunflower Movement. Is it because of the influence of the Sunflower Movement that a lot of people have entered politics so that there are less people demonstrating. One explanation would be that because of the success of the Sunflower Movement, young people have entered into politics. Or that the Sunflower Movement has failed, that it maybe succeeded as a movement, but the network of youth activists which existed has been broken up.
Brian Hioe: Maybe like its returned to the past, before the Sunflower Movement?
Na Su-Phok: I would explain it as the result of a failure of trust within the movement, that this led to hurt on both sides. So I would explain it that what are people doing now? Can you say that the people from the department of social science are now working in politics? Or that the people from within the Legislative Yuan are now in the New Power Party? You can’t exactly say that either. It’s not completely true.
It has to do with the network which existed a priori, perhaps. Because you know so-and-so, you ended up in the Department of Social Sciences. Later on, when they start working somewhere, they might ask you to join. Three years later, it’s not easy to confirm. A movement is a movement. It won’t influence or change anything. Even if it didn’t take place, a wave of young people would enter politics because politics requires young people to do. But for this group of young people, at a certain point in time, this event happened, and everyone experienced this.
Brian Hioe: How do you think China looks at the Sunflower Movement or Taiwan’s political situation right now, in that case?
Na Su-Phok: I don’t know. I’m not sure what China’s reaction is. I think China will at least reconsider its Taiwan strategy and that there will be a need to shift strategies. For example, look at Su Chi or Yok Mu-Ming. These people who speak up for China in Taiwan have a weaker and weaker influence. They are too far removed from the current generation and they were too transparent about their intentions, leading to people to discover where their interest with China lies. And so I think China will reconsider how to use politics or to use interest to try and win over Taiwan.
Brian Hioe: Do you think there will be another social movement like the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan?
Na Su-Phok: There might not be able to be an answer to this question. For example, after the Wild Lily movement, few people would reflect on whether there could be another such movement like it. You can’t really say as to whether the Sunflower Movement was the same as or different from the Wild Lily movement as well. So I think this is a historical contingency in the course of Taiwanese development.
Brian Hioe: The last question I want to ask is, do you think the Sunflower Movement can influence international social movements? Maybe most people discuss Hong Kong in relation to this.
Na Su-Phok: I still believe that Taiwan’s social movements and international social movements. For example, earlier before us, with the Arab Spring, it’s very hard to say how Taiwan’s social movement affects international social movements. Or that contrastingly, how international social movements affect Taiwan’s social movements.
It’s a movement created by the regression of democracy in Taiwan. But as for direct influence on international social movements, you can quite directly say that it has influence on Hong Kong. Including the people that formed Scholarism and the groups that appeared in Hong Kong in the past few years. These groups have much connections to Taiwan.
Counter of Cafe Backstage. Photo credit: Cafe Backstage
Brian Hioe: Structurally, they seem very similar to Taiwan.
Na Su-Phok: They also came to Cafe Backstage. Wu Rwei-Ren also came to Cafe Backstage with a group of Hong Kong activists. It’s worth looking into how they directly relate to each other. A more pessimistic outlook is that Hong Kong society is similar to Taiwanese society fifty years ago at present. Such as the White Terror or the martial law period. Hong Kong was originally a free society and I think that this is something that confronts Hong Kong intellectuals.
Because of this, Hong Kong is also a test case of Chinese annexation, and whether China will learn lessons from this. It is also possible that because China is concerned with Hong Kong, this will lead it to pay less attention to Taiwan. This is still a gamble, you could say.
Brian Hioe: Is there anything you would want to say in closing?
Na Su-Phok: To return to the opening question, what i want to tell everyone is that this was not an isolated event. In fact, it’s a development out of a process of historical development. At the very earliest you can talk about what took place in 2008, and what took place in between. These events are the reason why the Sunflower Movement was a high tide. It’s a high period after a period of sadness. But because of this, for the next 8 to 10 years, social movements may be weaker, I think this is a process of cause and effect.
As to why, this could possibly be explained as something that occurred because the DPP took power, leading to a breakup of the networks which existed before the Sunflower Movement or during the movement. Everyone has their own life considerations and needs, as well. So it’s very hard to continue something like this. I entered society quite late, when i was 30. But you can see that this generation is forced to enter society much earlier, when they are 20 or 25, and they have to live on their own.
This time has passed, so you need to in a longer period of time to nurture the next generation. The darkest period of time might actually be the best period of time. The eight years of Ma being in office could, in the end, have the opposite effect. And as the DPP and Tsai Ing-Wen is in power now, so will that necessarily be a better time period? Or could it have the opposite effect. It’s hard to say.