Interview: Ho Ming-Sho

Ho Ming-Sho is a professor of sociology at National Taiwan University and the author of Challenging Beijing’s Mandate from Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. The following interview was conducted on October 5th, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  The first thing I want to ask is, many of the people I interview state that the Sunflower Movement came out of a longer tradition of protest in Taiwan, as a result of which, it may have learned from past protests. I know that you’ve written that on the contrary, however, that the Sunflower Movement notably did not learn the lessons of past social movements in Taiwan. Can you discuss this?

Ho Ming-Sho:  If you look at the central leadership of the Sunflower Movement, there are many individuals with experience dating to the Wild Strawberry movement. From 2008 to 2011, there were spread out among many different issues. But the central leadership were those group of people. There are many differences, which I think which is what is most different from the Umbrella Movement. Many of the students that were part of the leadership were graduate students.

Photo credit: Y.H. Kao/Flickr/CC

If you look at Hong Kong, the connections were through the student unions, and many were freshmen or sophomores. So they didn’t have as much experience. As for Taiwan, they had a lot of experience by that point. I think there this continuity.

I believe something that was very influential was the failure of the Wild Strawberry movement. I remember I was talking with Jiho Chang at the Department of Social Sciences on Xuzhou Road. I was smoking outside with him and he told me, excitedly, “I’ve been waiting six years for this!”

I could understand what he meant. Jiho Chang is older. After the failure six years ago, they could finally make authorities afraid of them or whatever. At the time of the Wild Strawberries, Chen Wei-Ting was in high school, but Lin Fei-Fan was a sophomore, organizing with the 02 Society. I think that feeling of failure accomplished them very deeply.

So when the Executive Yuan incident took place, because the Wild Strawberry movement dragged on so long, they were very impatient. They wanted to take the opportunity to charge when they could. There were many factors. Ma Ying-Jeou held a press conference on 323 and there was a failed dialogue with Jiang Yi-Huah the day before. So even if they didn’t charge, someone else would.

But I think this central leadership had a view, which is to say that they wanted to wrap up the movement quickly. Compared to Hong Kong, they also had the opportunity to do this, but instead they withdrew. They had less experience. Whether the Executive Yuan incident was successful or not is another thing entirely, but whether it is good or bad as a lesson, I think that the influence of the Wild Strawberries was very deep on them.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that maybe it was because the Wild Strawberries was more structureless movement?

Ho Ming-Sho:  That’s right. During the Wild Strawberries, they were very afraid that there would be a leader, or to become linked to political parties. And they decided that there couldn’t be any spokesman that represented how this movement made statements to the outside. But as social movements went on, they became more and more focused on central individuals. From the anti-media monopoly movement onwards.

Brian Hioe:  That’s when Lin Fei-Fan and Chen Wei-Ting began to be famous.

Ho Ming-Sho:  They’re very used to this style and tend not to think it’s an issue. It sort of undid the past considerations and it became a very leader-centered movement.

Brian Hioe:  How do you think they tried to link the movement with society? One means was calling for a class strike among students. And the other was calling for labor strike among labor unions. Did this actually link up? There were statements of support from some labor unions, while other labor unions sided with the CSSTA and called for speedy passage of the bill.

Photo credit: Charlie Chang/Flickr/CC

Ho Ming-Sho:  I remember it was 321, when they declared that there should be a student strike and a labor strike. The Ministry of Education, as well as NTU, intervened quite quickly in declaring that students should continue to go to classes.

But I know that some schools and some departments got around this, with teachers not taking attendance, or many departments stating that it was okay not to go to class. Or that they would still have class, but they would have class in a different way. 100 student groups, including from different schools and departments, responded, but it wasn’t enough to stop all classes. That didn’t take place.

It was even more so with the call for a labor strike. They held a meeting with NGOs, which included labor groups. They told them that this was impossible, but students said this anyway. It was awkward. And so nobody responded.

Hwatai Bank had some internal struggles at the time, so they responded in passing a resolution expressing support. But this wasn’t actually connected to the movement. So I think that this was a failure. There were many failures in the movement in this way.

Brian Hioe:  Why do you think this was so?

Ho Ming-Sho:  The labor movement in Taiwan needs to be divided into two elements. One is like NGOs or students. Like those demonstrating Tsai Ing-Wen over “one set rest day” and “one fixed day”, calling for reform of the Labor Standards Act. Most of them are not labor unionists, but NGO activists or volunteers. And the other element is traditional labor unions.

This was a change that took place after the 2000s. Progressive labor unions connected with civil society groups to work together on some issues. Unions absorbed a lot of resources. So as a result, unions in Taiwan have become more narrow-minded and inward looking. They care only about their members. China Airlines might go on strike, but its only about that issue. If you look at 20 years ago, they would mobilize for political reform, or for some laws, even when they didn’t directly have to do with them.

With the Sunflower Movement, labor unions didn’t actually have any voice. First, they didn’t think that it had anything to do with them. The second is that Taiwanese labor unions are fewer in number. The most are in state-operated enterprises. So they don’t have influence. And in the service industry, there is some unions, but that was the banking industry.

But the banking industry used to be mostly state-owned. Such as First Commercial Bank or Mega Bank. Or if not state-owned banks, recently privatized banks. They protested for their own interests in the past, but the CSSTA opens up our banks for China to set up branches in Taiwan. Our interest rates are lower and their interest rates are higher. So their banks would make a profit. Bank industry workers wouldn’t have a view on this.

Photo credit: 綠魚/Flickr/CC

So as for the other service industries, they don’t have unions. It’s a very strange circumstance.  This is a puzzle. It was something that affects 6 million workers in the service industry. They participated, but this hasn’t been brought to the surface.

But this movement appeared to be a young person’s movement or a student movement. This is a puzzle. This is different from the Umbrella Movement. The Umbrella Movement was concerning an issue of political reform and although there was concern with the economy, it wasn’t concern with economic liberalization that provoked it.

Brian Hioe:  Regarding the leadership of the movement, the essay you recently published discussed improvisation in the movement. Do you think that in part resulted from the conflict between the horizontality and verticality of the movement? For example, it’s interesting to me that near the tail end of the movement, there the attempt to hold general assemblies by the central leadership, likely out of response to criticism.

Ho Ming-Sho:  I wrote that article because in the international world, there’s been a lot of discussion of this, especially after Occupy Wall Street.

Brian Hioe:  I was a participant then.

Ho Ming-Sho:  Was it very horizontally, as they say?

Brian Hioe:  Yes, but I think it was classically along the lines of “tyranny of structurelessness” in many cases. The moderators, who were mostly anarchists, claimed to not be decision makers but they controlled who could and could not speak at the events.

Ho Ming-Sho:  As I think you probably know, the Chinese translation of “Tyranny of Structurelessness” kept being passed around during the Sunflower Movement. As a negative lesson. That if you’re too democratic, you actually lose the ability to make decisions. I think that’s also a lesson. What do you think about prefigurative politics?

Brian Hioe:  I think it was impossible, it was just a small park, and when the police wanted to clear us, they could have. I think Graeber’s thinking is too idealistic, in that regard. He and others sometimes acted like there were no leaders, but there were.

Ho Ming-Sho:  I should say it this way. I can understand how in Europe and America, the political left feels oppressed because of political parties or the influence of Marxism, in placing theory first, and so they react strongly against this. This is why there is the autonomous movements in Europe and what is referred to as anarchism in America. I can understand this.

But Taiwan doesn’t have a very strong left-wing tradition, and this is very different from left political organizations.  Many NGOs are very skeptical of the DPP, but this is not the same. On the other hand, when I see David Graeber continuously writing about this, I think it feels a bit immature and impatient, because they emphasize prefigurative politics saying that you can’t use the movement as the aims to something. It seems like being impatient and wanting immediate gratification to me. It seems like a bit of a irresponsible fantasy.

With Taiwan and Hong Kong, on the other hand, you see that a lot of international media claim that Taiwan and Hong Kong were like Egypt or the Jasmine Revolution, that there was no structure, that there were no leaders, and that it was all spontaneous. I think it was not a precise characterization. Taiwan had a very strong leadership structure within the Legislative Yuan. So they made many mistakes. But it’s not just the people inside, there were also people outside. Which is why I argued about improvisation.

It was very conflicted sometimes. Some conflicts were unable to be resolved. The inside of the Legislative Yuan would not emphasize opposition to free trade. But outside, there were people talking about opposition to free trade. So this was a contradiction.

And the outside was very pro-Taiwanese independence. Up until April 7th, with the event to commemorate Cheng Nan-jung, then there was discussion of Taiwanese independence. But before that, Taiwanese independence was a topic that was not to be touched, instead focusing on the improper process of the event. Everyone’s goals were different.

If it was horizontal, it could reflect shared goals. But when these goals are in conflict, there’s no mechanism to resolve this. It was centralized, in that there was a leadership. And so it wasn’t horizontal, in which the leaders called all the shots. If not for the self-organized activity outside the Legislative Yuan, when they charged into the Legislative Yuan, they would have been dragged away right away.

So there were a lot of conditions mixed together. I’m not sure if this conceptualization strategy is useful. But in the literature, some people like to discuss the alternative globalization movement or global justice movement. They like to emphasize diversity or pluralization, such G-8 protests.

Photo credit: Y.H. Kao/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  I thought Occupy Wall Street was sort of like that G-8 protest tradition making a reappearance.

Ho Ming-Sho:  Taiwan doesn’t have this sort of tradition either.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think Untouchables’ Liberation Area went in this direction? Trying to be more carnivalesque in its form of protest, as with Occupy Wall Street or the G-8 protests.

Ho Ming-Sho:  I believe that they had their own agenda. They weren’t so innocent. They emphasized opposing the leadership—

Brian Hioe:  Some argue that they had their own leaders.

Ho Ming-Sho:  That’s right. So is every movement must confront this issue. Either there is executive decision-making. Or its spontaneous. You can’t have both. There’s a trade-off. But to some level, I think it’s already an ideal compromise in Taiwan. This movement is thought of as having been successful.

And participants may feel like their opinions weren’t respected and that they didn’t have a way to express themselves through the movement. This sense of feeling that they were excluded has declined though. So I view it as having had maximum effect and minimum frustration on the rank and file. I think that this is the best combination.

But I also want to raise, for example, I found out later that before Wang Jinpyng entered the Legislative Yuan, some people knew about this beforehand. They also had seen the press release that Wang was going to read beforehand.  I asked many people I thought were part of the central leadership and they said that this was impossible. I believe that they weren’t lying to me either.

I later talked to somebody who said that this happened in the central leadership. So there’s an aspect I don’t know. So there may have been more people who were more central within the central leadership, and they were central because of their connections to the outside world. They would act like they were part of the process, though.

They decided to withdraw on April 7th. Wang Jinpyng came on April 6th. They announced that they would withdraw on April 7th. This decision had been made before. Inside, they had to discuss this, and to make decisions. But it may have been fake.

Brian Hioe:  Like a performance.

Ho Ming-Sho:  The thirty member assembly or the nine person decision making body was in theory a decision making mechanism. But I don’t think this official mechanism played the decisive role. If it was unimportant decisions, everyone could discuss this. Regarding the decision to withdraw or not, it was a minority deciding this. And I believe this didn’t pass through any consultation or democracy.

Brian Hioe:  What do you think the influence of social media was on the movement? Did it really have that large an effect? People like to situate the Sunflower Movement alongside other social movements in recent years, such as the Arab Spring and so forth, in which social media played an important role. There were connections made through social media, but many were mobilized through preexisting networks that had accumulated from the Wild Strawberry movement up until the present.

Ho Ming-Sho:  This is also worth discussing, because its a large question in the research of social movements. The internet and social media. My own observation is that the movement was very large. And so everyone feels an ownership over the movement in some sense, they would perceive their own role as larger than it was, even if they weren’t part of the central leadership.

For example, the NTU Department of Journalism started NewseForum, whose Facebook page grew from a few hundred to tens of thousands have pressed like. They would report on things constantly and talk about how they had a responsibility to report. They later released a book. It was a team of of several hundred people, but their influence does not actually have seem to been the largest.

Or g0v. g0v did many things, such as the Hackfoldr, and they talked about it a lot. But if that didn’t exist, would the movement have actually changed?

Photo credit: Charlie Chang/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  I guess we could say that there had been social movements in Taiwan in the past, which were hundreds of thousands of people, but there was no social media before.

Ho Ming-Sho:  So I believe that not matter what circumstances, It’s a sense of ownership. You expand your own role. But looking back, to look at it more realistically, from when they went in, there was live streaming and this was being passed around on social media. During the Wild Strawberry movement, they actually had an official site. So they had a centralized window into the movement.

But there wasn’t such a thing for the Sunflower Movement, so it became that you would have to check what the Black Island Youth Front was saying, what Huang Kuo-Chang was saying, etc. It’d be very strange.

In 2008, Facebook was not as popular in Taiwan. People were using blogs. So it’s pros and cons regarding different platforms. In 2008, it was more possible to know what the movement was doing. And I remember that because there was live streams from different sit-ins on Yahoo! Live.

When there wasn’t so many platforms, it was less complicated, but now that there are more, its less decentralized. On this point, it that may actually harm the movement, because it becomes very hard to figure out what the core demands of the movement were.

It became using the Black Island Youth Front’s social media account to express demands, but many people were administrators and they fought about this, eventually with some people being blocked. It was chaotic, because of this design.

Comparatively, my own perspective is that compared to the Arab Spring or Egypt, the blogger, Wael Ghonim, who started the Facebook page, “We Are All Khaled Said”—Khaled Said was the name of the protester beaten to death by the police—Ghonim was running it from Abu Dhabi. He used fake accounts, hiding his identity. Egypt had a free Internet, unlike China, but it also has authoritarian repression.

So offline, its very hard to mobilize. But though anonymous online participation, its possible to take action, even if you’re not in Egypt yourself.  He told everyone to protest on January 25th. Because of political repression, given the uses of the anonymity of the Internet, you can maybe attribute a powerful influence to the Internet. But you can’t ignore offline activity either.

In Taiwan, it may not have necessarily been the importance of Facebook either. It was after something happened, news would spread through Facebook and other mediums. Afterwards people would look at it. So it was very different. Social media definitely had its role, but we can’t expand its role to larger than it actually was.

Brian Hioe:  What about regarding the ideology of the movement? For example, I ask a lot of participants whether they opposed the black box, or free trade, China, or the KMT. I hear a lot of different answers.

Ho Ming-Sho:  What do you think yourself?

Brian Hioe:  I think most people probably opposed the black box. But my sample is a bit strange. A lot are organizers. Furthermore, because I’ve written a lot about the topic, I think people are predisposed to telling me that they are opposed to free trade. If it wasn’t me doing the interview I don’t know what they would say.

Ho Ming-Sho:  That’s because you’re from New Bloom. [Laughs]

Brian Hioe:  But what I’m unclear on is whether there was a coherent ideology you can point to from this? Or whether there was no coherent ideology.

Ho Ming-Sho:  I think that’s a bit complicated. For example, if you look at the Sing! Taiwan incident recently, before you can see that the students said, “Why has our sports field been occupied? Why is it a black box that a business could apply for use of our fields and we didn’t know about this?” So they went to protest. They began with questions of process. But when they got there, it became, “Taiwan is not China! Set free Lee Ming-Che!” And then the pro-unification camp came and attacked people.

It was like that with the Sunflower Movement as well. The CSSTA was signed in June 2013. Lai Zhongqiang and others formed the Oppose The Black Box CSSTA Democratic Front. “Black Box CSSTA,” emphasizing that the process was not transparent. But when you talk about it longer and the contents of the trade pact, you can’t divide the contents of the trade pact from the process used to pass it. When they began discussing this in 2013, with different industries, opening up the 64 items and the service industries being opened, this would be a shock to the economy. And the other question is China. 

So you begin with questions of process, but then you can’t help but touch on the contents of the issue. It’s similar to with Sing! China incident. With participants, you have to divide it between different layers. With the core leadership, if you are Lin Fei-Fan or Chen Wei-Ting, of course it’d be odd if you don’t oppose the China factor. But I think that the core leadership would realize that discussing processes lacking transparency will attract more support from people.

Because you avoid questions regarding independence or unification. Within the core leadership, do they really oppose free trade from a left-wing point of view? Chen Wei-Ting always says this. He says that “I also oppose free trade.” But I have my doubts about what this means. Would you oppose a free trade agreement between Taiwan and New Zealand?

Ma Ying-Jeou raised this issue often, with regards to deer antelopes from New Zealand. It also exists between us and Singapore or us and Panama. Chen Wei-Ting also says that he opposes the TPP. But what’s the point of opposing the TPP now? America won’t sign it with Taiwan anyway.

My own view is that Taiwan depended on free trade in the past. But for a period of time, it was that we had exports, but not imports. It’s a form of protectionism, which America allowed for the sake of the Cold War. But when Taiwan came to have money, they want to force Taiwan to open up its markets. So imports and exports in Taiwan both became free and Taiwan joined the WTO. There were also protests against Taiwan joining the WTO, but this was limited. If you ask me, I think it’s a trade-off. If American pork entered Taiwan for the sake of Taiwan’s survival, it would be a serious and heavy decision.

It’s a question of priorities. But I believe that for a lot of people, this isn’t thought of in terms of priorities, it’s all the same, as a form of imperialism. However, I think if you ask the core leadership, from the Wild Strawberry and the anti-media monopoly movement, this sort of naive opposition towards free trade isn’t very left. Opposing Want Want, there was talk of opposing conglomerates.

Sure, if we oppose the China Times because of its ties to Want Want shouldn’t we also then oppose the Liberty Times, which is also owned by a conglomerate? I think that this kind of talk wasn’t accepted in the core of the leadership. Because if you criticize it as neoliberalism, this isn’t right. They aren’t depending on media to make money. Their money isn’t there. So if they were a conglomerate, it wouldn’t be a problem, it’s a pet of a conglomerate.

Photo credit: 中岑 范姜/Flickr/CC

I think from their experience up to now, they wouldn’t naively oppose free trades or conglomerates, that experience isn’t there. What I said before about sacrificing something or enduring something for the sake of Taiwan’s sovereignty, sacrificing some core values of the left, some of them might think this way, but this would require further discussion. So as for the core, they primarily rely on Taiwanese identity.

As for ordinary people, I think there might be a mixture. But when you look at the surveys Academia Sinica conducted, there is a proportion of those with different views regarding cross-straits trade. Some fear not being able to find jobs in the future, because of the economy. And some fear political consequences.

But these views are all present. It connects to each other, with the average person. But when you discuss the process being improper, or the 30 seconds incident with Chang Ching-Chung, its a way of justifying reason. This is quite prevalent. And then when students started talking about Cheng Nan-Jung, at heart was still the improper process.

This took place under the call that the cross-straits oversight bill needed to be passed first then the CSSTA would need to be examined under its conditions. That was quite easily able to reach consensus. The KMT later agreed to this as well and the Executive Yuan put out a version of the bill. This is quite consensual.

Brian Hioe:  It seems quite connected to legitimacy. Constantly raising the black box, because, again, it was only later on that the movement hit on Taiwanese independence. Such as the Cheng Nan-Jung Memorial Day or the Big Bowel Blossom Forums.

Ho Ming-Sho:  The Big Bowel Blossom Forum was saying what was on people’s minds. Coming out of the closet, so to speak. I think some things in the movement were done for the sake of legitimacy, such as cleaning the legislature themselves. As a movement organizer, you would think that this is being overly fussy. It’s for the sake of opposition that you demonstrate, not being a good kid.

Protests express anger and dissatisfaction. But the occupation was very disruptive, since the result is that the legislature can’t meet. As a result, you need to have a very strong social justification, such as lining up, maintaining process, etc. It’s for the sake of PR, but I don’t think that the participants actually believed this. They claimed that they didn’t want to create trouble for other people, that this was out of good intentions.

It had these consequences. And with so many people recycling and doing garbage, it’s hard to say whether this was an act or there really was a need or a combination. I believe that Taiwan is not so accepting towards such a movement. Taiwan doesn’t have a strong history of protest or civil disobedience. There was also a halo effect around the students and so forth.