Interview: J. Michael Cole

J. Michael Cole is a former Taipei Times reporter, the former editor-in-chief of the English edition of Thinking Taiwan, and currently the editor-in-chief of the Taiwan Sentinel. The following interview was conducted on October 11th, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  How did you first begin in documenting Taiwanese activism? And what were the causes that you documented?

J. Michael Cole:  Well, the very first social movement that I monitored and wrote about was the coalition of groups and individuals that had mobilized over the first visit to Taiwan by Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits chairman Chen Yunlin in November 2008. That’s when I got to know some of the individuals who in later years would become leaders of different social movements.

J. Michael Cole. Photo credit: J. Michael Cole

People like Lin Fei-Fan or Huang Kuo-Chang, for example, were all involved in the protests that surround that visit. Then I covered a few protests over ECFA. But never over a long-term perspective. It was very much that an event would happen, I would cover it, take photos, and that was it. The first real social movement that I wrote about at length and studied was the Alliance Against Media Monsters in 2011 and 2012, that was created over the attempts by the China Times chairperson Tsai Eng-Meng to acquire the Taiwan operations of Next Media.

That was my sustained series of analyses and reporting, if you will, on a social movement that had mobilized to address a specific issue. And that had some success in compelling the government to take the issue more seriously, as well as had some influence on policymaking. That led, again, to getting to know the principle players. Which led to the protests at Huaguang, with the demolitions.

Again, you start seeing similar faces, you become friends with them on Facebook, you look at what they’re looking at, and go, “Oh, this is cool, now there’s another protest over something quite different.” But what I realized is that there is this common thread going through all of these movements, which was that groups which were not trying to overthrow the government, but asking for democratic institutions to work properly. So it was about quality of democracy, transparency, and accountability, which, as we know, particularly in the early phase of Ma Ying-Jeou’s second term, were quite problematic. That led to…what we’ll be discussing later on. [Laughs]

Brian Hioe:  How did involve yourself in the Sunflower Movement in terms of embedding yourself in it and documenting it when it broke out? Did you expect that to take place beforehand?

J. Michael Cole:  I don’t think that anyone except for the leaders themselves, and even that is a question mark, expected that there would be such a thing as came to be known as the Sunflower Movement. Already in 2012 or 2013, I was writing that something big might happen eventually if the Ma government does not adjust its way of resolving these contentious issues. There was already an early sign with the 818 occupation of the Ministry of Interior in 2013, following a major protest on forced evictions and demolitions and whatnot, again, stemming from developments in Huaguang and Dapu, Miaoli county and all that.

Could I have predicted that there would be a Sunflower Movement? No. I had some leads telling me that something would happen on March 19th. Which was why on the evening of March 17th, I was actually having dinner with a Canadian diplomat, expecting that the following day I would have to go cover some interesting incident, which was, as I had heard, supposed to take place at the Ministry of Finance. As we know, this is not what happened, and, as we know, what happened took place the night before.

So I had to rush home grab my camera, and go to the Legislative Yuan to start covering what came to be known as the Sunflower Movement. In terms of my involvement, except for April 10th, when people left, I never entered the chambers of parliament for two reasons. First, as a foreign citizen, who at the time did not actually have proper accreditation as a journalist, I felt that it was not my place to enter that particular institution. I walked around on the grounds for the entire duration.

And second, the month before, I had just been hired by the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, which at the time, was run by Tsai Ing-Wen. Knowing that supporters of the Ma government were trying to depict the Sunflower Movement as a DPP plot or DPP-organized movement to attack Ma, the last thing that I wanted was for one of her employees, a foreign employee, to enter the Legislative Yuan and for some reason on that particular day, law enforcement decides to go in and drag everyone out. So the main reason why I chose not to go in there was because I did not want to cause trouble to my employer.

Knowing the environment in Taiwan, if I had indeed been caught, it would have been easy for the KMT to point fingers at the Foundation and at Tsai. I also believe that as a journalist-observer-academic, my main job was definitely not to become involved. It’s always been my rule, I will never hold a placard or chant slogans at any protests in Taiwan. It’s not my role as an observer. And I will let my writing state what my positions are on a particular issue. I know there were some observers who became a little more or a lot more activist when involved in the Sunflower Movement, but that’s a decision I made. To constantly limit myself to being an observer and hopefully and accurate documenter of what was going on.

Photo credit: Abby Chen/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  In terms of your observation of the movement, what did you think the movement was mostly about? I feel like there were a lot of different layers. For example, there was opposition to the black box. Opposition towards the KMT and China. And opposition towards free trade. Overall, what do you think motivated people to participate?

J. Michael Cole:  Well, you’re absolutely right that this was a combination of several dozen NGOs and movements that look at different things. So no doubt, there was an anti-China element, no doubt there was an anti-KMT element and no doubt an anti-globalization or anti-free trade element. I think it became what it was and it was successful because it was a coming together of all the forces that had mobilized in Taiwan since at least 2011. Reflecting and trying to address a deep discontent with the manner in which government operated.

It’s also very important to point out that it was aimed at the status quo of government in Taiwan. Meaning that even if it was targeting a KMT government because, after all, the KMT was in power, they were equally critical of the way that the DPP had been acting when it was government and even the way it had been acting as the opposition.

So it was leveled at more at structural issues than just a single issue. The CSSTA was the spark that lit the prairie on fire, but it could have been any other issue, I think. That deep malaise that had been forming in Taiwanese society for so long had become unsustainable and the fact that there was a Chinese angle to that story certainly mobilized a lot more people, but, again, I have difficulty singling that out as an anti-China activity because had people trusted institutions and government to properly handle these things.

I don’t think that the majority of Taiwanese would have had issues with the CSSTA that they did. Ultimately, again, it was a matter of properly functioning government institutions. That’s why I think it’s a misnomer to refer to this as the “Sunflower Revolution”. There never was the intention of overthrowing the government, let alone removing the democratic institutions that the government depends on. What they wanted was for those institutions to work properly.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think it had to do with Taiwanese identity? For example, many discuss the rise of Taiwanese identity as what has led to the social movements of the past few years. What is your take?

J. Michael Cole:  Well, there’s self-reinforcement and certainly a feedback loop. The liberal, democratic values that fueled those protests also in many ways speak to what Taiwan is all about today. Could a Taiwan exist without democracy, for example? Yes, but it would be a very different Taiwan. Now, the fact that Taiwan is a liberal democracy is a fact of life.

I don’t think there’s any wish among the majority of people here to turn back the clock on that fact. The fact now that Taiwanese activists now are addressing issues of the quality of democracy means that you’re one step further even, in trying to develop your nation. It’s not just achieving democracy, but trying to improve upon it and to further consolidate it. That cannot be disassociated from Taiwanese identity. Absolutely not.

Brian Hioe:  How would you describe the political views that Taiwanese social movements stand for? For example, when I ask most people, they describe themselves as left-leaning. Taiwanese political activists tend to be progressive on a number of social issues ranging from opposition to the death penalty to support of gay marriage.

J. Michael Cole:  Again, it’s all intermingled with identity. There’s no doubt that most of the activism we’ve seen in Taiwan in recent years is youth-driven. Taiwanese youth are, from a generational perspective, a lot more liberal and progressive than their parents’ generation and their grandparents’ generation. To me, it says that they are using the instrument of civil society to try and create their future Taiwan. You know, to help define it and to help transform it, based on a set of values a lot of which come from abroad, but which they have internalized or indigenized.

The fact that there were so many Taiwanese who in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s who were forced for one reason or another to move abroad, they picked up all sorts of mores and values and ideas, and a lot of them came back to Taiwan and indigenized—and Taiwan is very good at indigenizing all sorts of things, institutions included—and make it their own.

It’s a western, liberal democratic experiment with Taiwanese characteristics, if you will. I think youth really have their finger on the pulse of what is going on here, given that most of them outside government institutions, civil society and activism is their way of being participants. Refashioning and reinventing and creating a future Taiwan that reflects the nation that they regard as their own.

Photo credit: tinru/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  To talk about it from a historical angle, what effects do you think the Sunflower Movement has had three years later? Because, for example, Tsai Ing-Wen or Ko Wen-Je did get elected and these third parties have emerged. What are the lasting effects that you would point to?

J. Michael Cole:  Well, there’s no doubt that it derailed Beijing’s plans. And to a certain extent, Ma Ying-Jeou’s plans. It certainly confused a hell of a lot of people in the Taiwan Affairs Office and other institutions in China who had convinced themselves that economic determinism and throwing money at Taiwan was the way to resolve the contentious issues of identity politics in the Taiwan Straits.

I also think that it played a major role in awakening the international community to the fact that there’s a major structural problem in the Taiwan Straits and this is not simply something that can be addressed by having greater interactions across the Taiwan Straits or more money from the Chinese.

In academia or the media, I really see a departure point, if you will, in revitalization of the notion that Taiwan and China are indeed separate. I think it was a tremendous learning instrument for major media that had otherwise been completely ignoring Taiwan or that had not been paying attention to society in Taiwan. When they reported, it was all about what the KMT said, what the government said, what the DPP said, what the CCP said, and that was it, right? There’s 23 million people behind the scenes that are also driving the show, of course.

In that regard, I think there are some lasting effects on coverage and interpretations of Taiwan. The fact that even today you still have projects and conferences where the Sunflower Movement will be one of the key topics to me says that in many ways, understanding the movement, its raison d’être, its legacies, still needs to be properly understood and contextualized. It also sent a signal to any future administration that if the interests of society are deemed to be threatened by political decisions, the public has the means and demonstrated will to take action, even if there is bound to be consequences, legal or in terms of law enforcement.

So the fact that ultimately the Sunflower Movement got away with doing what they did, occupying a government institution, even the Executive Yuan, also speaks to acceptance within Taiwan that, within limits, the definition of democracy is the enlarged one in which, if necessary, the public can act outside usual democratic institutions to impose a corrective on government. That’s something that in terms of long lasting impact is that every future administration should keep in mind and which hopefully forces them to be a little more honest in terms of what they do.

Brian Hioe:  How do you think China looks at the Sunflower Movement? Because people seem to be divided between views that China will continue using economic means to try to win over Taiwan, as with before, realizing that it hasn’t succeeded in winning over young people to date, or adopt a harder line, as seen in the Lee Ming-Che case.

J. Michael Cole:  First of all, China is a big place, with a lot of people and institutions, so you cannot just say how “China” is reacting to the Sunflower movement. There’s a constellation of elements and agencies that are all looking at the Sunflower Movement from different perspectives. No doubt there are some people in China who probably understand very well why the Sunflower Movement happened. And there are probably others who are completely stumped by these developments and probably never saw them coming, particularly those who have less experience operating in a context outside authoritarian China.

So, again, it confused a hell of a lot of people not just in China, but especially in China. Because the Chinese Communist Party still seems attached to the notion that if you throw enough money at a problem, it will disappear. What surprises me is that they have tried that in Hong Kong, they have tried that in Tibet, they have tried that in Xinjiang for decades, and it has failed miserably. The notion that using the same means to address an issue that is even more complicated and would yield different results is preposterous. That speaks a lot to the inability of the Chinese leadership to either access information that it needs or refusal altogether to explore other means by which to engage Taiwan.

Ultimately what it means is that it demonstrated the complete failure of the main approach by which the main Chinese agencies have taken in dealing with Taiwan. But, as I said, we have to be careful when we talk about China. Not everyone is on the same page, even if they can’t publicly say that back in China for obvious reasons. But there are enough intelligent people in China and now there’s enough Chinese that have had the chance to visit Taiwan to understand why people here would have had issues. And that speaks to opposition to unification and all that, right?

Photo credit: Abby Chen/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  In terms of the activists you got to know during the Sunflower Movement, from your observation, what are people doing now three years later?

J. Michael Cole:  Well, some of them have made the jump from activism/civil society to working within institutions. It’s not been without its trauma because things are very different once you’re in government, especially once you’re in power. But I think ultimately it’s going to make them better rounded individuals. Because you cannot only exist outside institutions and snipe at them for not adopting what are often your maximalist views on certain issues.

It’s important even you only spend a year to two within institutions to know why certain things work, why certain things don’t work, and how decisions are ultimately arrived at in government. That’s why I would counsel anyone who wants to be an activist or journalist or academic to at some point spend a couple of years in government, to see how things work or don’t work on the other side of the divide, if you will.

So a number of them did that and some did that for a few months and were disillusioned and left, because for them it was untenable. A good number of them are pursuing higher education. Lin Fei-Fan, for example, and Chen Wei-Ting also ultimately wants to go to grad school in the West as well.

I think that’s a good thing because a number of Taiwanese activists have probably never looked outside of Taiwan. That’s going to be a growing experience for them to get to know other people, to experience other systems, other democracies, and hopefully they come back with not only diplomas, but new ideas and they come back and more well-rounded individuals who, if they chose, to enter academia or even government, will be better equipped to deal with the many challenges that Taiwan still faces.

And then there’s the third group, who were activists and are still activists, and now rather than oppose a KMT-led government, are opposing a DPP-led government on a series of issues, many of which are quite reminiscent of what was going on under Ma. Land evictions and development is not just an issue that plagued the KMT government, but is something that the DPP needs to deal with as well.

Brian Hioe:  Along those lines, do you think there could be another movement such as the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan in the future? If so, how?

J. Michael Cole:  As I said earlier, the genie is out of the bottle on that one. Taiwanese society has proven that it can happen. And they have proven that, equipped with the right individuals, and the right cause, this is something that Taiwanese society could do. It’s all contingent on the actual context and the issues, but, again, I can think of many countries including mature democracies in which the Sunflower Movement would not have lasted the twenty four days or so that it lasted. It would have been nipped in the bud, probably quite violently the first night.

So that speaks to the acceptance of Taiwanese society to the occasional taking of more drastic action. What matter is not so much the few hundred individuals who are willing to take the risks, but for a movement to be sustainable, it needs to gather support from within the general public. That does not mean taking to the streets, but just supporting, by following on Facebook, writing editorials, or even not actively opposing, as a form of tacit support.

That’s another reason why the Sunflower Movement was able to last so long and succeed in achieving some of its goals, that there was support from a majority of people in Taiwan. Having demonstrated that it was possible to do this when the stars are aligned, I don’t see why something similar could not happen at some point.

What the issue would be, that remains to be seen, and there’s also the element that people who actually wish ill upon this place and have causes and ideas that are not necessarily supported by the majority would also try to that historical precedent as justification for taking that sort of action. Here, I’m obviously talking about quasi-civil society movements such as those currently opposed to pension reform and same-sex marriage, they have formed their own alliance, with a mixture of influence from deeply conservative elements such as the Blue Sky Alliance, pro-unification triad groups such as the Chinese Unification Promotion Party. And China, behind the scenes, might try to exploit these.

There’s always a possibility that at some point, you might see the occupation of a government building, by a coalition of those groups. Where they will encounter difficulties is that its highly unlikely that they would garner enough support from within the public, that would act as a restraining variable against government evicting those protesters. Again, it’s all contingent on context. But, yes, it could happen again.

Brian Hioe:  Lastly, do you think that the Sunflower Movement could affect international civil society? How do you think so, if so?

Photo credit: tinru/Flickr/CC

J. Michael Cole:  A clear early example was how many elements of the Sunflower Movement were emulated by the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. We saw slogans and stickers and banners and features that were highly reminiscent of Taiwan. And there had been several exchanges between civic activists from the two sides.

Again, going back to my earlier point, the Sunflower Movement very much succeeded in publicizing the malaise that existed in Taiwanese society and highlighting the differences between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. The fact that it became the subject of so many conferences worldwide or that it was one component of conferences on civic activism or whatnot, even in countries that are not exactly democratic, and I’m thinking of Singapore, where I was invited to give a talk in fall 2014 about the Sunflower Movement—and the activists in rather repressive Singapore were mightily surprised about the freedoms that the Taiwanese activists enjoyed and a lot of the said, “Oh, I want to come to Taiwan to learn more about how they’re doing things”.

Liberal movements across southeast Asia paid a lot of attention as well and were very curious. Not only about the movement itself, but about the permissive environment that allowed a movement like the Sunflower Movement to do what it did and accomplish what it did. I think it became a source of inspiration and maybe even emulation for a lot of people worldwide.

Again, the applicability is always questionable because, depending on the country, they might decide to crack down rather than allow a movement to continue and get the oxygen it needs to spread, like the Sunflower Movement did. But I really like to think that it has put Taiwan on the map, not only, as I said, distinguishing it from China, but also speaking to the vibrancy and originality and organizational capabilities of civil society in Taiwan.

It’s very little known that Taiwan has such a vibrant and, in many ways, modern civil society. If it took something as drastic as the Sunflower Movement to put them on the map, and I really believe it did, then it facilitates future dialogue with NGOs and civil society worldwide.

Now, as I said in my previous response, the fact that some of the key leaders of the Sunflower Movement are now grad students at Oxford University and London School of Economics and other universities, chances are they will interact with other individuals, share their experiences. And ultimately that’s all part of Taiwan’s soft power, if you will.