Interview: Shen Chingkai

Shen Chingkai is an assistant professor of philosophy at Fu Jen Catholic University and the founder of Philosophy on Fridays (Café Philo in French). The following interview was conducted on November 11, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  So the first question I want to ask is, how did you begin to participate in social movements? What kind of issues did you participate in and why did you participate?

Shen Chingkai:  Because I studied in Europe, at the Université Catholique de Louvain, I participated in several movements. I was the executive secretary of the European Federation of Taiwanese Associations. We had a activity to bring students to oppose the anti-secession law in 2005 and we later organized some activities for the Taiwan UN Watch, and to translate European news on Facebook for Taiwanese readers. We also organized the Taiwanese Young Scholars in Europe to connect Ph.D students and overseas students in Europe, that we would hold this every year. After that, we in 2007, we organized the UN for Taiwan activities in Europe, which you could still find online. I was the one who organized the connections for that in Europe.

I did these things while overseas. When you are outside of Taiwan, you can perceive Taiwan’s international situation quite clearly. Or feel that Taiwan is worth protecting more deeply. So when I came back, I went to work at the Youth Synergy Taiwan Foundation  (青平台) for one year from 2010 to 2011. Then Cheng Li-chiun and me began to start some different things. Such as bringing young people to see local areas and highlights of Taiwan. But this kind of tourism had to do with local social issues. We organized some screenings that had to do with democracy. We also organized early open data and open government initiatives at the Youth Synergy Taiwan Foundation  (青平台). At the beginning of my coming backing to Taiwan, we started some forums, like Philosophy on Friday (哲學星期五 in Mandarin or Café Philo in French).

Fundamentally, my connections with people from Taiwanese social movements began with the Youth Synergy Taiwan Foundation  (青平台). The beginning of Philosophy on Friday, in which you did not need to pay to participate and everyone is volunteers, was closer to the way social movements did things. But we wouldn’t feel that we were doing a social movement, because people in social movements are advocating specific topics and we weren’t doing this in Café Philo. So most of the time, I was working on Cafe Philo and came to know people in Taiwan working on social movements.

Shen Chingkai speaking at Cafe Philo@NY. Photo credit: Cafe Philo@NY

Brian Hioe:  How did Philosophy on Fridays begin?

Shen Chingkai:  It began on Friday, August 13, 2010, two weeks after I came back from Europe. We began Philosophy on Friday then. Up to now, it’s been seven years. And there are more than thirty places. Including six locations in America and two in Germany, because sometimes they link together. There’s also one in Holland and one in Japan. And some others.

We’re a horizontal organization, because we share resources and we can work individually. We don’t have the time or energy to establish any hierarchical structural and that’s not necessary for these kinds of discussions, so we link together with current social movements on many issues.

If you look at it in relation to the Sunflower Movement, before 318, many of these people who participated in social movements had been speakers at Café Philo before. We would work on different issues. For example, I would work on issues related to Taiwanese independence. Or more related to philosophy, starting from philosophy as a way to change people’s thinking. That way, our consideration of issues would be clearer, not just using traditional thought to consider issues. Because we hope that people on the streets know why they are on the streets.

Brian Hioe:  What were you doing at the time of 318?

Shen Chingkai:  When they charged in, I went in with them. Because Kuo-Chang and I had just finished organizing a recall campaign with the Constitution 133 Alliance to call for the recall of Wu Yu-sheng. I was responsible for some administrative work in this. After this, we started to organized a group called the Citizen’s Constitutional Government Group (公民憲政團), but this never came to fruition. When 318 happened, the plans for this were disrupted.

At the time, Kuo-Chang called me or texted me saying that there would be something that would take place at night. I was teaching class, so after class ended, I took the taxi over to Qingdao East Road. I saw that there were already people outside the Legislative Yuan in the marking lot and so climbed in and pushed my way in. Some pictures you saw from then may have been taken by me.

Because we needed people to maintain the outside, because there were already people inside, when we were certain that there were people inside, I took responsibility for supplies. After finishing that and someone else took over, I helped manage the outside space. On the first and second days, this was quite important. It was quite tense then. On 318, most of the time professors such as us or volunteers at Café Philo all went to help manage the site or served as MCs. To let everyone go up in terms to talk.

Much time was spent on this. But I was involved in a lot of different things as well. Such as the campaign to send sun cakes around or sunflowers. Or when the White Wolf came on-site. I was there then.

Brian Hioe:  Did you have any views regarding the decisions made by the core decision making group?

Shen Chingkai:  The core decision making group was a consultation body. I think I am much more tolerant to the core decision. Even their decisions are not entirely transparent, it’s a way to fight a war. When working on this, we were thinking about what we could provide, because when there are more and more people, you can’t really make any decisions in face of urgent situation like 318. And I believed in these partners, that they wouldn’t do too badly.

But when it comes to democratic process, anyone can come in, you don’t know who is who. So I feel that when we began, there was already a decision making working group that was collaborating with NGOs.

Maybe because I wasn’t so central, because I had to return to school to teach class, I wasn’t someone that worked in NGOs, who could continue to hold meetings, one after another. After I joined, up until 330, I didn’t have to go join as much committees to discuss, because the form of the movement was more set.

Cafe Philo logo. Photo credit: Cafe Philo

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that your participation in Taiwanese social movements has to do with your sense of Taiwanese identification?

Shen Chingkai:  Of course. To give an example, the day that the White Wolf came, I happened to MCing. You can see this online to. The White Wolf shouted “You’re all the product of Chinese people fucking!” When I heard this, because I was MCing up in front and I saw everyone was quite worried, I said through the microphone, “Everybody, the White Wolf says that you’re all the product of Chinese people fucking! Tell him what kind of people you are?” And everyone shouted that they were Taiwanese.

That was the time I maybe felt happiest maybe in the movement. Because before, many people were unwilling to say that they were Taiwanese and distinguish themselves from Chinese. But at that point in time, when the White Wolf came out, that gave me a good opportunity that everyone could say this loudly. There also was the memorial day for Chen Nan-Jung on April 7th, because people all began to say at that point, “I am XXXX, I advocate Taiwanese independence.”

We would always ask people who were the people that were participating for the first time. Everyday, we would see that 1/3 of those were participating for a long time. This lasted for a long time. But within the atmosphere, you would find that most people did not say that they were Taiwanese or Chinese, it was only that when the White Wolf came there that they started saying this.

Brian Hioe:  I was there that day.

Shen Chingkai:  You were? I see. But I think that there was that this atmosphere needed to be led. I wrote an article for some of the groups more on the periphery, such as Le Flanc Radical. I think that at that time, those people who were more moderate or sought to be more objective, they emphasized opposing the CSSTA and not opposing free trade or opposing the CSSTA and not opposing China. There were two different perspectives in looking at this. There was also the aspect of providing oversight over democracy and etc.

Later, voices opposing China as well as opposing free trade appeared. That was the best kind of atmosphere for left independence to develop. We can categorize it as left independence, anyway. Regarding what to replace free trade with, whether Taiwan is an independent country or whether it isn’t or whether it is an independent country that isn’t recognized, these kind of issues rose up and could be discussed. I was very enthusiastic about that.

Brian Hioe:  Would you say that the movement was opposed to the CSSTA, opposed to the KMT, or opposed to China, along those lines?

Shen Chingkai:  These three aspects were all present. In the beginning, it was opposing the KMT. Because it’s a dictatorial government to begin with. But because of the weakness of our transitional justice, the KMT still exists. It should already be a part of history. However, Taiwan’s democratic system allowed for the preservation of the KMT. Sometimes it has the democratic system to thank for it not being eliminated.

On the other hand, regarding opposing China, we have to make some distinctions. Opposing China was opposing Chinese political control, not opposing the Chinese people or Chinese culture, or these things, because it’s an issue of the relation between different countries. Or opposing the CCP and the danger it poses to Taiwan, as well as its oppression towards Taiwan.

Regarding free trade, before 318, there was a large number of voices that opposed free trade. Whether opposing American beef or which took place under conditions of free trade such as the Dapu, Miaoli incident, as well as investment and etc. There were people discussing FTAs and whether we needed FTAs and ECFA.

We had opposed ECFA for a long time because ECFA had two reasons as to why people could oppose it. One is China. It’s too close a connection with China that we might be swallowed up. The other is free trade inherently decreases the salaries of laborers. So how to balance this out.

Or under free trade, that many discussions are lacking transparency. Or that the government’s assessment doesn’t make measures to prevent unemployment or to address unemployment, poor families, etc. This is not considered in the government’s assessment.

Up to now, there is still opposition to free trade in itself in Taiwan, but it is weaker. But Chinese government uses free trade as a means to enter Taiwan, as a means to use large capital to enter Taiwan. So in the future, if China uses free trade to enter Taiwan, the situation we see now with Chinese capital, if the DPP doesn’t take care of this, this could lead to threats to Taiwan from China. For example, with big data that can be gained from apps and etc., much of Taiwanese society might be affected, including free speech rights.

Cafe Philo coffee shop. Photo credit: 左轉有書x慕哲咖啡

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that Taiwanese social movement participants have any political leanings? We touched on left independence earlier, for example. People use say that they are left-leaning or left-wing and are progressive on a number of issues.

Shen Chingkai:  I think that left and right are a question of the political spectrum. I came back from Europe. It’s a systematic issue between different contexts. Within Europe, 40% to 60% of taxes are from social communities. So what the taxes are used for resource distribution. If there are no taxes, there’s no way to distribute resources.

Advocating left independence, this is a system-based left. There is a radical Left as well. But this isn’t in Taiwan. We’re discussing left-wing issues under the system of capitalism. But in Europe, they discuss left-wing issues under socialist conditions. The left-right spectrum under capitalism and the left-right spectrum under socialism is not the same. So if we don’t change this system to allow it to be more equal, or workers’ conditions remain very poor, then when we discuss left-wing issues, it has to do with system-based reform.

When we discuss left-wing issues in Taiwan, it is very romantic, as well a powerful means of pulling in people. So when we discuss the future of the left or Marxism, we always get a huge amount of people in Café Philo. People are very interested in issues regarding social inequality. This kind of label refers to the pursuit of equality. It’s a means to this end, to pursue the equality that we aspire towards.

But if Taiwan’s left wing is not able to overcome present-day capitalism in different sectors, then it just becomes talk. It’s this kind of situation. Unification and independence are easier issues to distinguish, because if you’re not pro-independence, you’re pro-unification. If you’re not pro-unification, as far as China is concerned, you’re pro-independence. It’s easier to distinguish.

However, left and right-wing are a spectrum. If you’re left, to what extent? Or what about the right? Because in reality, Taiwan is a very right-wing country. Crony capitalism is very deeply rooted. So it’s harder to discuss left and right in Taiwan, because labor unions are not as strong as in Europe.

If you want to really go at it with capitalists, you’ll need to use labor unions. You can’t do this without labor unions. If the government doesn’t support labor unions, then, like Marx said, the state is a “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie”. It’s just a management committee and behind this, capitalists are running things.

Taiwan has a lot of space for a left-wing, but the left-wing is often given a bad name. As violent or rioters. I’m not sure how young people think about it now, but for people in their 30s or 40s, when they hear left-wing, they think it’s Communism. This is better with this generation a great deal. Because before 1992, there still hadn’t been any transition in power.

I remember that the first set of collected works of Marx that I bought was something I brought back from China in 1994. In 1994, everyone was still discussing the ROC. So if you are reading Marx and try to organize a reading group, then you’d have some issues. For example, looking at the incident in which NTU students were arrested for reading books related to Taiwanese independence in 1991, reading Marx would also have issues.

On campuses, before 1990, these people studying in schools were influenced by the KMT’s party education greatly. They really hate to hear the word “left-wing.” They might pursue justice and equality, but they won’t use this word, left-wing.

But left and right has a long history in Taiwan, because pursuing Taiwanese independence and pursuing left-wing issues. Regarding proletarian control of society and casting aside nationalism, it’s the right-wing which is doing what is nationalistic. However, that kind of international connection isn’t limited by nations, pursuing equality won’t occur through the nation. There’s a distinction between “left independence” (左獨) and “independence left” (獨左).

Then, are you discussing left-wing within the framework of independence or independence within the framework of left-wing thought? If you discuss independence within the framework of left-wing thought, then you encounter some difficulties. It’s harder.

Talk at Cafe Philo. Photo credit: Cafe Philo

If we change the system to be more equal, and it will be left-wing. But it might not be able to uproot national divisions. The state may be as difficult to uproot as capitalism.

Those I know who are pro-independence, they are usually not young people, and they are left-wing, but might not say this. Being left-wing doesn’t mean that you are pro-independence either. But many of those who are pro-independence are left-wing in this new era.

Brian Hioe:  Three years later, how do you think that this movement has influenced Taiwanese politics? Or Taiwanese identification?

Shen Chingkai:  We can discuss this using 324 as an entry point. I was also on-site on 324. Because I knew that there would be some issues, I found a group of professors and we wrote a press release, which we sent to Jiang Yi-Huah, telling him that he could not harm students. On 324, that day, when I went, I ran into Tsai Ing-Wen. Tsai Ing-Wen was in the middle of heading over. And on 324, I think that many people are hurt. Because a lot of our people from Philosophy on Friday were there.

Brian Hioe:  I was also there. I was one of those who charged.

Shen Chingkai:  It was a turning point. But nobody had prepared for this. To overturn the country. But if you look back on it, we didn’t know how to confront the state apparatus then. We later discovered that we had lost a good opportunity. That day, there were people who were injured. But to turn it around, it caused more people to come out onto the streets.

After 324, we suggested to people in the core decision making group that we should hold a large-scale event on 330 outside, to let all the people express their voices. So all these internal conflicts or discussions, because there were internal disagreements, needed to externalized, to allow it become something covered over by a larger action. That’s why 330 would take place.

I also believe what has taken place in the last three years, this has also led to the DPP taking power and the rise of the Third Force. And young people feeling more empowered to enter politics, though this is still fewer people. Or that politics won’t be thought of as a dirty thing, as in the past. Politics can be something people chose as their profession. For example, because I teach, and I brought back a Ph. D from Europe, to work in thought, this is something that regular political figures won’t do. So I have to do this.

But now, political participation has expanded. That through some social groups or advocacy, this meaning has expanded. Including discussing democratic values, oversight by the people is very important. If everyone enters politics, who will stand on the side of the people? As a result, social movements have become weaker.

I believe that after the Sunflower Movement, apart from pulling down the KMT, which is the most important event, and the appearance of these small parties that are able to replace the KMT and allow Taiwan to have two-party politics, this is a better ideal. To allow them all to be local political parties. And after 318, some things still have to be done, because we haven’t finished them. On the surface, we’re doing these things, but the social strength is lacking, and we still have problems regarding poverty or young people being unemployed or nobody being there to take care of old people.

Photo credit: Cafe Philo

The DPP taking power won’t resolve these right away either, they’ll still have pressure from capitalists, so they may become even more conservative. But the people doing this in the DPP don’t participate in social movements. Those who are passionate and participated in social movements are working in the Third Force or, while in office, are still participating in social movements. They might not be those that start movements, but they quite intelligently know how to go with the trends.

In 2014, apart from Le Flanc Radical, other groups hadn’t formed political parties. Because people were afraid of being criticized, they were afraid to form political parties. So the DPP could co-opt them. After co-opting them following the victory in nine-in-one elections, this led to Tsai Ing-Wen winning.

And this has been a large influence on the DPP taking power, but regarding transitional justice or other issues, the DPP may be willing to take on these issues, but we don’t know if it has to the strength to push them to fruition. For example, regarding party assets, or labor policy, or pension reform, in theory the DPP is working on this, but will it do well?

But after the Sunflower Movement, for the Taiwanese independence movement, would also be caught within the ROC government. I’m part of the World United Formosans for Independence. We oppose the ROC system. Independence from China doesn’t need to be discussed, but independence from the ROC is something we pushed for. How do we become independent from this system in a manner that is Taiwanese independence?

In terms of the present “maintaining the status quo”, this is impossible. With pressure from both America and China, this can’t be done. So there’s a need stronger social force behind this. But it can push for stronger systematic reform, so people can live better and more fortunately or to normalize the country or have a transparent government. That doesn’t necessarily mean changing the name of the country.

And what civil society groups need to do in the meantime is to push harder on this issue. Otherwise, there’s no bargaining power. If civil society doesn’t have advocacy for Taiwanese independence, there’s no way to negotiate with America or to negotiate with China. This is something that three years later we have to think about.

We have some friends who are quite idealistic, willing to stay where they were and continue to work. We have to think of how to draw on this force. Because what Taiwan confronts as its greatest issue right now is capitalism. Nobody has money, so under these conditions of low salaries, can you ask these people to participate in social movements, to take up social responsibilities and civic participation? That’s impossible.

Under these circumstances, capitalism is something that the government may actually use, through low salaries, to repress civic groups. But it’s very careful about this.

New organizations also need to self-organize. Because you can’t depend on past politics. We could do a lot of social movement activities, have organizations, and make connections before the DPP took power. But after the momentum for this has dispersed, following the Sunflower Movement we have to evaluate how this social movement came about. We should preserve that past ability to self-organize. That way, there can be oversight over representative government.

Brian Hioe:  How do you think China looks at the current political circumstances in Taiwan?

Shen Chingkai:  I think Tsai Ing-Wen won’t do anything. Of course, we currently have a situation in which we are under the protection of the US and Japan, in the first island chain. As well as that although China claims it has military power, it is still contained.

America also cannot give up its interests in Asia. So in the long-term Taiwan has to be an chess piece. You can see that under Ma Ying-Jeou, despite leaning towards China, he also maintained relations with America. Under Tsai Ing-Wen, this vacillation won’t be so large, because China keeps trying to undermine her.

So under these circumstances, do you pick America or China? When you can’t pick, you have to pick one. So Taiwan will probably build stronger relations with America.

On the surface, America won’t say anything bad towards China or won’t seem more antagonistic. Under these circumstances, Taiwan will have to be more careful, when targeting American interests, Taiwan’s interests may be sacrificed. One can’t be too overly enthusiastic.

Photo credit: Duke Lin/Flickr/CC

It’s the same as when targeting Chinese interests. Taiwan’s interests will be sacrificed.

But for America and China, Taiwan is not the most important to them. Because America and China need to address North Korea and trade issues. So I think this will go on awhile. Taiwan is still okay, regarding that.

We’re confronting other issues, too. It was reported in Business Weekly before, for example Lai I-Chung has observed that there’s a lot of exported capital, online commerce, and all of this is Chinese capital. Taiwan doesn’t have any policy addressing this, including Chinese capital entering as foreign capital and taking over investment companies in Taiwan, or buying up different media. Or how they are attempting to pull in young people. Such as through conducting cross-strait exchanges.

It feels like cross-strait exchanges have decreased since Tsai Ing-Wen took power, but in reality, this isn’t the case. They continue to try and target young people. They also know that Taiwan has many unemployed professors, so they can try and pull them there to work. We don’t know if this is good or bad. It is definite that United Front efforts will continue. But some people that go over may discover that the two sides are completely different and come to dislike China. Or the people they absorb may be people that are pan-Blue to begin with. This can be an example for them. Taiwan has a lot of professionals, so it would have to make them into an example for other people.

We have to think of ways in Taiwan to allow young people to start their own business enterprises. To have more resources for them to create things. When we discuss the Taiwanese independence issue, we can’t expect this issue to be settled very quickly. If young people don’t continue this, there will be issues.

But right now, conditions for young people are so poor, they can’t take on organizing a movement. It’s impossible, structurally. There are not enough people and to have a large-scale movement is impossible. So there are only two ways, capital and consciousness.

Consciousness needs to be trained, that way there’s understanding of how to shake up this system. When there’s no capital, consciousness is a very powerful strength. In many movements, this begins with education regarding what to do to prepare for the future, and what to do to allow these people on this piece of land to be able to imagine the future and realize themselves.

To be an independent country, you have to be able to be a free people, to want to have an independent country. Otherwise we could just immigrate to any country that could protect us. I believe that the current environment is freer than under the KMT government. But that means that we should work harder on what we couldn’t do in the past.

Brian Hioe:  Lastly, do you believe that there could be another movement in Taiwan such as the Sunflower Movement?

Shen Chingkai:  I believe that the strongest movement right now is the LGBTQ movement. It’s only that movement. There’s a very unequal circumstance in which gay people have been oppressed by straight people for so long.

The other possibility for a large-scale movement is regarding social inequality. You can also look at the anti-nuclear movement or labor movement, their mobilization strength is not as strong as before. Labor policy regarding one set day off and one flexible rest day could lead to something.

We’ll see when it’s International Labor Day in May 1st of next year. There may be a number of people that stand up. There might be street protests, but for their to be an occupation movement is less likely.

However, if it’s a movement that pulls in all of Taiwan, for domestic issues there may not be much possibility. Regarding the threat of China, we can look forward to something taking place. But it might not be a nationalist movement, in the sense that people are not so concerned whether Taiwan is an independent country or not. They consider the ROC to be Taiwan.

For them, this system is one which oppresses Taiwanese people, but they won’t resist this if they become used to it. They’ll wave the ROC flag all the same. So for the future, I still think what is most likely to lead to something is the Taiwanese independence movement. The current DPP government is quite afraid of any rise of Taiwanese independence, because that would lead to questions of legitimacy for them and prove disruptive for them, even though they should walk down this path. Their current assessment is that they don’t need to do this, because it is more safe.

Photo credit: Toomore Chiang/Flickr/CC

Up to now, a lot of DPP policy is not so different from the Ma administration, which is why people often say that there hasn’t been any real change between Tsai and Ma if you just look at the surface. Both say that the ROC is Taiwan and Taiwan is the ROC. That these are the same.

And you can see that when facing China, the DPP government says “Republic of China.” When facing Taiwan, the DPP government says “Taiwan.” When facing the world, when participating in international organizations, it uses “Chinese Taipei.” It looks as though this is quite set in terms of policy. Once in awhile, it stealthily sticks in Taiwan, it can only do this. I think that they probably feel quite humiliated about it themselves.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that this could influence the international world? Or international social movements

Shen Chingkai:  Under globalization, capital is moving from place to place. Sort of like Uber. It enters a market, but doesn’t pay local taxes. It thinks that in providing local employment, that is enough. That it doesn’t need to pay taxes. But that’s very disruptive of local rights, seeing as local industries providing the same services have to pay taxes.

We currently confront transnational capital, in which we can’t have any of the money they extract return to the country, on the land they are using. In the future, it might like what Pikkety describes in Capital in the 21st Century, that there may need to be someone to think of a way to extract taxes from this transnational capital as it circulates, otherwise these local people will suffer.

The other issue is AI. In twenty to thirty years, it will replace human labor, and many forms of employment. Most forms of employment will become unnecessary, so if we think of 80% of industries going out of business, then what? Those working in those industries still need to survive, but under capitalism, only for there to be a cycle of labor and consumption can this return to capitalism. Without consumption, then what?

So some people discuss basic income as a solution, should we also try and think about this issue? It seems like giving someone unemployment benefits, but living outside of work, we need to figure out a means to allow people to live like people. For every individual to be able to live like a human being, when they currently have this environment with these conditions of oppression. 

But up to now, most people discuss AI in terms of automatization, and less so regarding unemployment or basic income. What will happen when there is mass unemployment? It’s a similar issue to fifty or one hundred years ago, with modernization and industrialization, large migration of populations into urban areas—leading to the desolation of farmland and rural areas—as well as industrialization leading to mass unemployment. If there may be a large movement, it may be by advancing this basic income movement, or figuring out a way for income to return to a local country from transnational capital. I think that we are doing this so that people have a vision for the future, to allow people to live more like themselves. That’s what I believe.