Interview: Aman Wu

Aman Wu was one of the convenors of Youth Against Oppression, is currently a spokesperson of the Economic Democracy Union, and is the convenor of Taiwan Nest. The following interview was conducted on September 28th, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  How did you begin participating in social movements? For what reasons? And regarding what issues?

Aman Wu:  I first began participating in social movements probably around 2011. Back then, I only worked as a volunteer for some anti-nuclear groups. That doesn’t particularly count as participation in a  mass movement. I began to participate more in October 2013. That was the first protest I participated in. That was with Chen Wei-Ting and others by the Presidential Office.

Why did I go to participate? After I joined the anti-nuclear movement, I began to look on the Internet to see who was saying things similar to me, so I could learn more. So I met Chen Wei-Ting and others. Because they didn’t only express their views with regards to the anti-nuclear movement.

I kept reading what people discussed on the Internet, and would find that a lot of what I read about, I wasn’t reading in newspapers. I could only read such news on Facebook. In the beginning, I was an office worker, so I donated money. Later on, it felt as though it were quite strange that there was only a dozen or so students a lot of protests, so I felt that this was pitiful and that I would go to see on-site. On October 2013, I only planned to go and listen to the speeches, then ended up getting dragged into protests. And I began participating in social movements up to the present.

When the Sunflower Movement began, it was the same. Because of the action in October with the Black Island Youth Front and other people the previous year, in 2013, I had met the people in the Black Island Youth Front. Because there weren’t a lot of people, I might not have known them very well, but we had met before. There was only 50 to 60 people then.

I was among the first to be mobilized in the first wave that charged into the Legislative Yuan, although I didn’t realize myself initially that there was no way to get in from main entrance by where the Alliance of Referendum for Taiwan (ART) was. I went to Qingdao East Road and helped manage the amount of people on the second floor balcony, since we were afraid it would collapse because there were too many people standing on it.

We handled the ladders, if people needed to come up, then we would let them up. Afterwards, I was mostly outside. During the movement, people moved in and out, but I was working then, and I hadn’t then stopped working to only focus on social movements. I would go to the Legislative Yuan to check things out, watch television, or read on Facebook.

Subsequently, I participated more during the Executive Yuan incident. I was the head of one of the groups that charged the Executive Yuan.

Aman Wu. Photo credit: 吳濬彥/Facebook

Brian Hioe:  Which one? I was at the back door then.

Aman Wu:  I was the head of the group at Zhongxiao East Road. The one closer to the East District, on the right side. I was with some band members and we organized a group to try and break in.

After we broke in, I was one of the participants that didn’t succeed in getting in. After that, I served as a mediator between police and the people at Chen Qisun’s office. So during the Sunflower Movement, I either was part of those who charged or those who maintained order, like that.

Brian Hioe:  What are your views on some of the larger decisions that were made during the Sunflower Movement? Particularly regarding 324 or the decision to withdraw.

Aman Wu:  Later on, the reason why I began Youth Against Oppression was because I opposed withdrawing. After going through the Executive Yuan incident, I looked at it as though it were an action in preparation for revolution. Because the discourse regarding Taiwanese independence that I encountered then was the view that the ROC government was a colonial government in Taiwan and a government-in-exile in Taiwan, colonizing the Taiwanese people.

And because I hadn’t participated in such a large social movement before, or how I looked at this world or society, this was quite shocking. You didn’t know if there would be a next year. You wouldn’t think about anything outside of the movement.

With regards to withdrawing, those of us that started Youth Against Oppression didn’t understand what their views were. We felt then that we hadn’t definitively blocked the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) then. Just that Wang Jinpyng had agreed that he would ensure that that the cross-straits oversight bill was first passed before passing the CSSTA. He made that promise then.

But the KMT, or at least Ma Ying-Jeou, didn’t say that he would back down from the CSSTA. As a result, we didn’t understand why they decided to withdraw. I made the decision not to go on the day of the withdrawal.

Brian Hioe:  What about 324? Because you were also a participant.

Aman Wu:  Yes. And also, the 324 incident was split off from the Legislative Yuan. There was a sense of being unsure what was going on, and not being sure whether we had done something wrong, because we weren’t sure who we had been mobilized by. You thought that the people in the Legislative Yuan knew what you were doing, but many things were unclear and uncertain. So afterwards, it was looking at events as they happened. But I didn’t have faith in the decisions made in the Legislative Yuan back then.

Some of the work I did after the withdrawal was different in nature from those within the Legislative Yuan, and there weren’t a lot of exchanges. A lot of groups emerged after the withdrawal from the Legislative Yuan.

But there were some shared issues we worked on. A new force had been created in society in response to political oppression. There were many issues that could mobilize people after that, such as opposition to nuclear energy and demonstrations on Zhongxiao East Road.  And some social movements. After that, the high tide of the Sunflower Movement began to decline, up until the DPP took power, which was the end of a period in time.

Brian Hioe:  Can we talk a bit about why Youth Against Oppression was formed and what it did?

Aman Wu:  Youth Against Oppression was formed from a group of people outside the decision making group during the Sunflower Movement. The group was always on the streets then. At the same time, there were different traffic management groups on Beiping Road and near the back door of the Legislative Yuan.

Youth Against Oppression was formed by where the ART was, as a youth organization. The reason why we formed it originally was because on PTT, people brought up old Taiwanese independence in the style of the ART. And then I thought, “Why is it all old people working on the Taiwanese independence movement? What are youth organizations doing?”

I didn’t know the development and history of the Taiwanese independence movement at that point in time. I felt that a group of young people in the Sunflower Movement should more openly advocate Taiwanese independence.

You raise in your questions whether the Sunflower Movement was opposed to China. My view was that in the important decision making process of the Sunflower Movement, people still focused more on improper legislative process.

Brian Hioe:  I think the most amount of people opposed the black box and the least amount of people opposed free trade. And in between was opposition to the KMT and to China. How would you explain this?

Photo credit: Abby Chen/Flickr/CC

Aman Wu:  It’s every person’s individual process of decision making. For example, I encountered the China factor quite early on, so opposition to China was not surprising. But as for free trade, that’s also the case with me, because the entire world has all shifted to China.

Concerning economic exchanges between Taiwan and China, this is something which is still undecided in Taiwanese politics. This includes opposition to the KMT, because many people were participating in the movement while at the same time learning about Taiwan’s economic situation, Taiwan’s relation to China, and Taiwan’s relation to the KMT. Up to know, they are still learning about this. It’s not always the case that people had these political views before the movement. Participation in the movement and awareness of these issues developed at the same time.

As for myself, I originally thought I participated because I opposed China. But looking back now, my views are no longer the same. For example, through examining traditional industries in Taiwan, or now that I understand economics and free trade better, I might look back on the foundations upon which I participated in the movement and feel that there’s a large difference in views. That includes knowledge regarding Taiwan’s international status.

Brian Hioe:  Why did you participate in the movement? Do you feel it has to do with your sense of Taiwanese identity? With regards to the Sunflower Movement or other Taiwanese social movements.

Aman Wu:  I feel I wasn’t able to look at it very clearly in the beginning. Because it was from the Shilin Wang family incident and the Dapu, Miaoli incident, up until the Hung Chun-Hsiu incident, that I started reflecting on the government or its nature in a way I hadn’t thought very much about before. To understand the relation of the government and the people or Taiwan’s political situation.

Participation in the Sunflower Movement may have included the element of opposition to China, but I wasn’t able to come up with a systematic set of views regarding that. There may have been opposition to the KMT and opposition to free trade, but you may also feel more clearly that you have a hard life, as a poor young person, and behind that, is free trade or the China factor. Or a generational disparity. You may oppose things for this reason, but you can’t come up with a systematic set of politics pointing out the structure as to why things are this way.

Looking back, you can see that it is because of these things that you mobilized onto the streets, but at that time, I think it may have been naively being dissatisfied with or lacking faith in the government. That’s why you would go onto the streets. To find answers. Because the answers are probably on the streets. You might hear speeches about the movement on the streets, and discover your sense of identification. Or through experiencing violence at the hands of the state. Realizing what your relation is between yourself and the state. I would look at it that way.

Brian Hioe:  How would you explain Taiwan’s social movements being more left-leaning? I think that participants in social movements tend to be more progressive, for example, opposing to the death penalty or supporting same-sex marriage. Why do you think that? I’m not always sure why everyone claims they are left and so few people claim that they are right-wing.

Aman Wu:  I think it probably does lean left. Social movement participants probably couldn’t embrace social movements that they say lean right-wing, it’s a dirty word. [Laughs] But I still think there are two parallel lines that always don’t meet, social movements and the independence movement. In social movement discourse, you might have some contradictions between the two.

For example, Le Flanc Radical, it might advocate driving out Chinese students. Or with regards to the issue of healthcare for Chinese students in Taiwan. In the midst of this, we’ll discover that there are still some fundamental contradictions that will appear between pursuing Taiwanese independence and pursuing social equality or social justice. But this is something that will inevitably take place.

It has to do with social groups on Facebook as well. I think that it’s very easy for social issues to form a community behind it and link up with other issues. Does this mean that everyone is considering every issue carefully? Not necessarily. But there’s a community regarding these issues.

Photo credit: 吳濬彥/Facebook

Brian Hioe:  Three years later, how do you think the movement has affected Taiwanese politics or Taiwanese identification?

Aman Wu:  Let me discuss a bit about the series of events during the Sunflower movement. When the movement withdrew, I wasn’t too satisfied. So I began Youth Against Oppression. In these three years, the movement started off from a peripheral position. Did you know that Lin Fei-Fan and Chen Wei-Ting were originally planning on joining Democracy Tautin? But they were invited to join Taiwan March.

Originally, after merging with Democracy Tautin, I was also planning on merging with the Black Island Youth Front. This was to concentrate resources. And under what circumstance should organizations merge? It’s when they have suffered a decline, which is why they merge.

But what is surprising is that after merging with Democracy Tautin, the Black Island Youth Front disappeared before a merger could take place. Yet in this process, you work with a lot of organizations. You begin with this network and slowly enter into the same network with the core leadership of the Legislative Yuan, exchanging opinions with them, and working together on issues. For example, I began to work on investigating Taiwan’s industries with Lai Zhongqiang afterwards, because our view is to see whether Taiwan can only pick one option between Chinese and American free trade.

What we encountered is that because much of the Taiwanese independence discourse came from students that studied in America, many people advocated that Taiwan should join the TPP, as the choice between America and China. What we wanted to consider was, first, before the Sunflower Movement, public hearings were held for Taiwanese industry. Some people benefit under free trade and other people have disadvantages, but usually those who benefit are conglomerates and big business, because they have more resources to influence this kind of thing. Those who get absorbed and small are medium-sized industries, run by regular people.

Before the CSSTA, public hearings were held and NGOs participated in them. But afterwards, some government representatives went and some small business owners didn’t have the training to really discuss adequately the needs and demands of their industries in those hearings. This led me to wonder, if we switched to the TPP, would that mean that our discussion with small and medium-sized business owners and local industry be enough?

So afterwards, I recommended to Lai Zhongqiang that we do this kind of industrial survey and conduct fieldwork. I knew that this probably had two waves in the past. During Lee Teng-Hui’s presidency, this was probably to encourage academic institutions and students to do surveys in neighborhoods and industries, using thesis and dissertations. Now, the government provides a lot of resources for people to go to neighborhoods to find problems and take another step, in making a documentary or something like that.

But this doesn’t solve the problem. I would feel that, regarding the CSSTA issue, if you have to discuss this again, the DPP’s current attitude is that is very impatient whenever someone raises the CSSTA issue again and why the current government hasn’t passed the cross-straits oversight bill. Because looking back, it’s not that everyone opposed China, or free trade. It was a small minority that opposed free trade. Most people believed traditional, mainstream economics. That free trade is a good thing. So if the CSSTA comes up as an issue again, or whether the TPP replaces the CSSTA because its changed to a different country and everyone can suddenly accept this, I think this will still create a lot of problems.

What we hoped then was that we could redirect this energy from the CSSTA into investigating the effects of industry. Because without a sense of who free trade would affect, I don’t believe that young people would stand up again oppose free trade.

I believe that the Sunflower Movement was a movement came out of a series of events, erupting out of dissatisfaction about a number of issues, which is why the movement would succeed. That includes the Hung Chun-Hsiu incident, issues of land appropriation, lack of faith in the government, and most importantly, the state, with police beating students. In that regard, I think 324 was quite significant for the success of the movement. Because when the state takes action, or states that Z is greater than A or what have you, that lack of faith is something that was very important.

Discussing whether the CSSTA is advantageous or disadvantageous after that is meaningless, but it gave the movement a chance to succeed, which is that many people were injured and the course of their lives may have changed. Some might involuntarily tremble when they see the police from now on, and there also people who have been driven out from their homes or fired from their companies, because of participating, and this has changed their lives a great deal. Or some people have mental health issues now. This is a wound caused by the movement.

Because participating in social movements is also because of being unable to heal that society treats you this way, with regards to the police treating you this way. And this is a source of strength in participating in social movements, because through participation, you come to know this country and society.

Brian Hioe:  Three years later, how do you think the movement has affected Taiwanese politics or Taiwanese identification?

Photo credit: othree/Flickr/CC

Aman Wu:  Three years later, looking back at the Sunflower Movement, even as we were organizing at the time of the withdrawal, we’re still not certain whether the CSSTA has been blocked up and until now. But looking back, after I got to know Lai Zhongqiang following the withdrawal, it seems that meeting minutes show whether they were discussing whether to believe Wang Jinpyng. And with the DPP’s uncertain attitude, you’re still not sure if the DPP has been blocked.

Three years later, the cross-strait oversights bill or the CSSTA hasn’t been passed either. It’s dragged on three years, even through 2014 and 2016 elections, in which the results weren’t bad and the political parties changed. I think the first stage of the anti-CSSTA and Sunflower movement can be said to have succeeded, but after the movement, there are still some things which need to be taken care of. For example, regarding industrial surveys. We did this ourselves once, regarding the metal industry in Xinzhuang and I investigated farmland in Meinong.

Afterwards, I don’t think this is a waste of time. It’s something that should be done, but what is very sad is that it’s a bit too late for this. This was in 2015 and 2016 and this year. But it would have been unlikelier to take place earlier.

Before the Sunflower Movement, these two routes, in which passions dispel and people leave the social movement, we can divide this into the electoral movement, running themselves or working as a legislative assistant or aide, hoping to change social movements into an electoral movement. As for myself, in these past two years, my plan is to try and work in social movements up to a certain point, to confirm that the CSSTA has really been blocked. In the three years since the withdrawal, it looks as though the CSSTA is blocked. To create a model for industrial surveys. And hoping to confirm something.

Not everyone has the resources to participate in elections. Taiwan does not have public funding for electoral participation. Can young people interested in politics truly understand the state of Taiwan’s industries through industrial surveys? When a new cross-strait agreement is being discussed, when scholars are evaluating this, or there are local industries affected by the agreement, the first thing we need to do for industries that might be opened up to foreign competition, we have to first see if they can obtain enough information to know that they may confront this challenge in the future. Second, if the government has allocated enough support and funding to try and evaluate which industries may be affected. From past experience, this is not currently enough.

It’s a myth you often hear that the less that the government intervenes into the economy, the better. That you should let captains of industry decide from themselves. But from the results of our investigation, it seems that this isn’t the case.

There is the choice between a government which is useful and a government which is useless. It’s not the choice between the government and the free market. And what you can see is that Taiwan’s government cannot handle the 70% of small and medium-sized enterprises.

Two or three people counts as a company. Such companies won’t be audited by labor regulations, because there is not enough resources for this. Likewise, its very easy to start a business. They act as a small company in industry, but may make a lot of money. Do they count as capitalists? I think this is quite an interesting question. It looks like they may have started a company, but they are actually not so different from the working class.

Does the government have any way to adjust its system to take care of what I discussed, to confront globalization? Currently, I don’t think so. This is also Taipei North is currently doing, going from opposition to the CSSTA to creating something new. From opposing the CSSTA to trying to find ways for small and medium-sized enterprises to resolve the issues that face them due to globalization, as well as revitalize traditional industries. And emphasizing local economy and localization.  

Has this influenced Taiwan? Regarding the switch in political party, I think it’s a very important turning point in terms of Taiwanese identity. And it’s change in this generation for individuals becoming concerned with social issues under poor economic conditions and realizing that they are part of these issues. This has brought new strength to civil society. With regards to Taiwanese domestic politics, I feel optimistic.

At the very least, there is a group of people, such as myself. My life has changed entirely and the way I look at my participation in social movements is completely different. I often joke that, I may not necessarily be able to change Taiwanese politics, but Taiwanese politics have completely changed me as a person! Because I started off in the working class, in a woodworking factory. At the time of the Sunflower movement, I was working in imports and exports. I got into this because I started going exports. Like I said earlier, I encountered the China factor very early on because when I was twenty, as a worker in a woodworking factory, I hoped that I could eventually open a woodworking factory of my own and wanted to learn the skills to do that.

But I later discovered after learning this for two or three years that this was much cheaper in China and that they were more highly skilled. I had picked an industry in decline. I had no space to create a business of my own, and had spent two or three years learning this. That’s why I changed to imports and exports and other fields. So I knew quite clearly early on, regarding the rise of China, China’s influence on Taiwan, and the effects of globalization. I knew this quite early on.

Brian Hioe:  How do you think China looks at the current political situation in Taiwan after the Sunflower movement, then?

Photo credit: tinru/Flickr/CC

Aman Wu:  Something I quite worry about is that, seeing as the regular person is still the majority of Taiwanese society. Even if we talk about a generational shift, the generational shift might actually push some people towards China. China has adopted a strategy of coming to Taiwan and inviting Taiwanese organizations, officials, and entrepreneurs to China to conduct exchanges. And this is led by the Taiwan Affairs Council and other important individuals. This is true of foundations and start-ups, with China providing interest to try and attract Chinese people.

I have a lot of friends, such as in the electronic industries, who have gone to China as a result. Every half a year, they would go Shanghai, and there’s no other choice, because Taiwan can’t compete with China. What I worry about more is that China may not want to spend time trying to convince those who already oppose China not to oppose China, the minority of social movement participants or those concerned with social issues.

This is not the target of the United Front. And they won’t spend too much time being concerned with the Sunflower Movement. Instead, it will use morality to try and smear social movement participants and won’t fear just using 50 centers. It just needs to achieve a goal.

After filling up your comments on social media with 50-centers, you won’t really want to argue, because regular people will feel afraid and not want to participate in this discussion. As long as they achieve these goals, they are fine. They don’t need to discuss anything with you, or fear to realizing that these are these ”Fifty Cent Party” accounts.

They may realize something, which is that their target for the United Front should not be government leaders, such as the KMT. At the very least, after the Sunflower Movement, they can realize that the advantages that the KMT can bring them have become limited. Will they turn next to the DPP? Not necessarily.

It’s not that the KMT and DPP are competing about which one of them leads Taiwan for the CCP. I feel that from the DPP taking power, something you an see very clearly, is that the tourist industry and its leaders in Taiwan that caters to Chinese tourists called on Tsai Ing-Wen to recognize the 1992 Consensus.  They were very smart about it. Tourism actually only comprises a small part of Taiwan’s GDP. But for the tourist industry to protest, it’s highly visible, and the dramatic nature of drops in Chinese tourism can make it seem as though this were a big deal.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think there would another movement such as the Sunflower movement in the future? If so, why? Many people feel that after the DPP has taken power, it is unlikely that there would be another such social movement, for example.

Aman Wu:  I think because the China factor is something that is more and more concretely affecting Taiwan, as you can see with comparisons to Hong Kong, I don’t believe that one can be so optimistic about that the DPP taking power means that the DPP can allow for Taiwan’s economy to separate itself from China. This will depend on how the global economy shifts. What Taiwan cannot avoid is that the power of the market.

Is it really that the KMT wanted to sign the CSSTA to sell off Taiwan? That’s not how I look at it. As I see it, Taiwan has this need, and these capitalists that do business have these needs. So one cannot look at it from the point of view of political parties, one needs to look at it from the economy. And I don’t believe that in the short-term, Taiwan can change this situation. So I believe that there will possibly be larger social movements in the future. There is another issue. Which is that because we cannot control our own economy, and so we cannot control our own politics.

If our own politics cannot be controlled by ourselves, and democratization is stuck and the system is unable to be completely satisfy the needs of Taiwanese people, this may lead to national divisions. As well as Taiwan’s lack of international recognition may lead to further issues.

If we don’t take care of this issue, the PRC will strengthen its claims over Taiwan in order to achieve its goals and to threaten democracy in Taiwan. So if the DPP in power is unable to take care of these economic issues, is unable to ward off China, and is unable to satisfy the demands of the people, this conflict will lead to the rise of new social movements.

Photo credit: Abby Chen/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  Lastly, do you think that the Sunflower movement can influence international social movements? Maybe more people discuss Hong Kong.

Aman Wu:  Are we that amazing to have international influence? [Laughs] I believe that the Sunflower Movement has influenced East Asian or Southeast Asian countries, closer countries such as South Korea or Japan, with regards to politicians or participants in social movements. It may lead to reflection or discussion.

Will the Sunflower movement influence international social movements in a significant manner? Maybe it’s more in Hong Kong. But I don’t think the influence is that large, overall. Because I see that in America, it doesn’t seem like a lot of people paid attention to this. It probably won’t influence the whole world, but countries nearby might discuss it.

At the very least, it will allow our generation to realize the shared conditions confronting us which also confront young people participating in other social movements, as shared between Taiwan confront the rise of China after the Sunflower Movement. For those countries facing the same issue, I think they will also consider this, whether Hong Kong, Taiwan, other Southeast Asian countries, Japan and South Korea. If, after the Sunflower movement, there is a new way to connect different countries in terms of thought, this may need more looking into.