Interview: Wen Liu

Wen Liu is an assistant professor at the University of Albany, State University of New York and a founding member of New Bloom. The following interview was conducted on September 20th, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  How did you first become involved in activism? What were the causes you participated in and for what reason?

Wen Liu:  I started in the LGBTQ movement from my time in college in Seattle. I eventually started doing that more transnationally, looking at LGBTQ rights in Taiwan, I also visited China to look at the different conditions there. So I built a sort of transnational network through queer activism and I’ve also done other work, such working on the Palestine solidarity movement when Gaza was attacked.

I think that really helped me think about US imperialism more broadly. And I was also involved in immigrant labor rights. I’ve been really concerned with different forms of racial and sexual oppression across the borders. I had been doing a lot of things before the Sunflower Movement.

Brian Hioe:  What were you doing at the time of the Sunflower Movement, when that broke out?

Wen Liu:  I had moved to New York and I was in grad school. To be honest, I felt quite disconnected from all these connections to movements I built up when I was in the West Coast. That was sort of an exciting time to know that there was such a big movement breaking out in Taiwan, which was really out of my expectation. So I guess I was really excited…? I guess this sort of leads to your second question? [Laughs]

Wen Liu, center, speaking at a Cafe Philo@NY event. Photo credit: Cafe Philo@NY

Brian Hioe:  How did you come to participate in the Sunflower movement?

Wen Liu:  I was watching the news on the night of the 18th, when the occupation broke out. But also when the Executive Yuan occupation took place, which led to this very violent reaction from the police. People, you know, in New York, were pretty angry about it. And I actually wasn’t working with the so-called traditional Taiwanese activists in America at the time.

I had a bunch of queer, mostly artist and designer friends who usually did not care too much about Taiwanese issues or activists issues in general, but they got really angry because they saw the footage from the Executive Yuan. They decided that they wanted to do something and we came up with an emergency mobilization at Union Square and they made all these flags, sort of like a funeral for Taiwan, with really dramatic calligraphy.

Brian Hioe:  The funeral for Taiwan calligraphy.

Wen Liu:  So we did a lot of those. A lot of people came out. I think everyone wanted to do something, but there wasn’t any official organization that could do that. You know, there’s Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA), and there’s the Taiwan Center, but they’re generally older generation elders or second-generation kids, most of which do not have that much understanding of Taiwan’s issues. The rally really brought out a lot of different people. The elders, the international students, and the sort of young, professional workers all sort of came out.

Brian Hioe:  There were a few events held during that time, to my awareness. There was one for 330 which was bigger. I think Ed said that was at your place? He said there was another one too.

Wen Liu:  There was another one, the Times Square one. I forget when, but that was a global solidarity call done by mostly Taiwanese oversea students. That is also when the Overseas Taiwanese for Democracy (OTD) folks came out and formed a formal coalition after the event. So the global solidarity movement of mostly international students overseas organized many rallies. That was a lot bigger. But we the group originally mobilized the protest in NYC didn’t really agree with some of the main demands they were calling out, which was something quite vague about Taiwan’s democracy.  We wanted to really emphasize the anti-neoliberal trade part of it, but they refused to put that on the agenda.

Brian Hioe:  You mean in New York? That’s interesting, I’d like to talk more about it later. So those were mainly activities aimed at raising international attention about the Sunflower Movement? Or having international news reports in Taiwan that are sympathetic or sort of saying that international students are in support of the Sunflower Movement.

Wen Liu:  Yeah, I think that was definitely the main goal. And what really came out was a sense of frustration. Obviously, we thought international attention would help, because we’re sort of like this huge fucking thing is happening and people are doing iReports on CNN or whatever, but out of this, international news is not picking up on this event. It wasn’t until the New York Times much later that we were like, international media is actually recognizing Taiwan and noticing that something big is happening in the country. So I think that was really a sense of frustration and anger.

Brian Hioe:  I see, so going back to the sort of split about these different issues. Based on what I’ve gathered from talking to people, my research, and observation on the ground back then, I think most people were opposed to the black box or the process by which the trade deal was passed.

And above that, a group lesser in number was opposed to the KMT and China, and the fewest amount of people were opposed to free trade. That seems to be the kind of three or four levels of how people understood the movement. How did that dynamic play out in New York, or otherwise internationally outside of Taiwan?

Solidarity rally for the Sunflower Movement in New York City. Photo credit: Enbion Micah Aan

Wen Liu:  I think the Sunflower Movement and the international scene feels quite different because all those nuanced debates were happening in Taiwan. Because there were a lot of grassroots activists who have worked on the issues forever, like anti-gentrification, whatever. But in New York, I think most people remain at a level that Taiwan needs international recognition.

And there’s definitely a huge sort of anti-China sentiment, because for most people abroad, it does get really annoying when people just think you are Chinese. I feel that that sentiment is huge and real. I wouldn’t say it’s completely unproductive, though, like it was actually quite helpful to gather a lot of people who were not politicized before to think about why we need to have a different kind of Taiwanese independence movement and why relying on the old model of US support is not enough through their own personal experience in the US.

I know a lot of leftist activists would critique this sort of anti-China sentiment, but I feel that it wasn’t that unnuanced when it was playing out on the ground, I would say. I feel like there’s something different in how people are feeling about it.

Brian Hioe:  From my view, on the ground, there weren’t a lot of anti-China slogans on-site.

Wen Liu:  I feel it didn’t come out in the way that people were calling out Chinese people. It was more of a historical sentiment. Or frustration with the Chinese state’s aggression and arrogance.

Brian Hioe:  I looked through several thousand images of the Sunflower Movement recently and I only found one anti-China sign out of several thousand images.

Wen Liu:  It’s mostly just bullying. It wasn’t against the Chinese people. There were some Chinese students that came out to support it in New York.

Brian Hioe:  That’s right. I’m also planning on interviewing some of the Chinese participants in the Sunflower movement on the ground in Taiwan. Though I’d probably have to use a pseudonym for them.

Anyway, yeah, on the ground in New York, looking at some of the big events that happened, were there sometimes disagreements regarding key events such as 324 or the decision to withdraw from the Legislative Yuan. For example, between the mainstream of the Legislative Yuan and other elements of the movement, there was also the left-wing critique of the Untouchables’ Liberation Area.

Photo credit: Enbion Micah Aan

Wen Liu:  Yeah. I feel that a lot of those debates didn’t happen at a level as nuanced in New York, but there was a decision about the sort of global rally in Times Square. There was the question of the fact that there wasn’t any official organization, so who were really the leaders? There was really no consensus of who we should go to. And then just because we did the first rally, we weren’t saying that we were the leaders either. So when people wanted to organize for the Times Square event, we were really happy, saying that’s great, if you can reach out to a different kind of audience, that would be wonderful.

But when they came out with a slogan that wasn’t anything really including why free trade is bad for Taiwan and mostly it was about the anti-black box or something very generic, such as Taiwanese democracy. I remember I was just e-mailing or calling the organizer at that time, asking if we could just add something like at least a sheet or a flyer talking about the damages of free trade. And they were like, “No, we can’t do that. Because that’s going to alienate people who disagree on that. So that’s not a sort of a more consensual issue.”

We decided to lead our own separate rally, I think from Bryant Park. We were wearing all black, but we made these flyers with the items of the CSSTA, and we were passing them just out to nearby Americans and whatnot to talk about why this is an important issue and not just why we need to think about Taiwan. Such as that this is closer to what is going now with the TPP. So we had that flyer and we led this rally to join the main Times Square event. And we had our own sort of speak out thing, because obviously, for some reason, they didn’t have more spots for us to speak on the main stage. [Laughs] So I feel like it was sort of a counter-protest, but we were like, “Okay, we need to talk about this issue too.”

Brian Hioe:  That’s really interesting. Because that feels like it almost replicated what happened on the ground in Taiwan. That same dynamic played out.

How would you understand Taiwanese identity with regards to participating in the Sunflower Movement or solidarity activities? Or Taiwanese social movements overall. Like, was opposition because of identity? Or more opposition to free trade from an internationalist perspective?

Wen Liu:  I feel like they cannot be separated. Obviously, there’s more “correct” leftist discourse where you focus on the trade agreement itself, but what I notice on the ground is really that Taiwanese identity or consciousness brought people out. And maybe that pushed me out too, so I feel like those things are really hard to separate for me.

But what I also noticed, which I’m been talking about for a long time, is just a need to create an alternative Taiwanese independence discourse. And I feel that the Sunflower Movement really gave me an entry to think about that and to reach different kinds of people interested in this issue, not just as a generic way of saying that, “We should join the United Nations.” That’s important, but also we need think about the economic and the political aspects of Taiwanese independence.

Photo credit: Enbion Micah Aan

Brian Hioe:  How would describe your take on social movements in Taiwan and their political leanings, then? Because it’s interesting to me because through all these interviews, everyone seems to know that social movements are more center-left leaning. And that social movements are more progressive on issues across the board, ranging from gay marriage to opposition to the death penalty, or free trade, or things like that. Almost nobody would describe themselves as right-wing.

But where do you think that comes from? Obviously, the left had been stigmatized for years in Taiwan. And in the movement itself, some of this discourse about free trade was excluded from the appeals of the movement.

Wen Liu:  I think that’s part of the reason why Taiwan hasn’t had a sort of national labor movement, at least, as intense as South Korea. The movement in the 1980s was about labor rights, but it wasn’t so much focused on all workers’ wage conditions. So I feel like that’s key why we can have a lot of more social demands on marriage equality, feminist issues, multicultural awareness, and environmental rights.

But a true labor movement is something I am not sure has happened, because of the anti-communist sentiment and also the lack of national identity. So I think that is something that is lacking in Taiwanese history. And I don’t know if I would say that the solidarity movement in the US is actually center-left wing. That’s also hard to determine because if you talk about the issues regarding the military, that’s a huge issue in the FAPA community.

Most people are happy to work on legislature with Republicans or military arms deals. And if you ask overseas students who all agree on these sorts of social issues such as same-sex marriage or other progressive social issues, not a lot of them will say that Taiwan should not work with the US regarding arms deals. It’s a very, very small percentage of people working on this saying that we need an alternative. Like in OTD, we could not agree on that, and I haven’t found any ally who agrees on my points.

Brian Hioe:  Yeah, I think that’s going to be very difficult. I have those issues as well. It’s not too surprising.

So how how you feel about the movement now, three years later? Do you feel that the movement has had lasting effects on Taiwanese politics or Taiwanese identity? Because most people talk about Ko P winning and Tsai Ing-Wen winning and that the Third Force. But what do you think beyond that as well?

Wen Liu:  I definitely agree on that. If you define politics in terms of identity, it still had this major impact. And what I think is also important is that Taiwan now is really at a stage of the post-martial law period of democracy. Even when we were growing up, even when we were under the DPP being in power, there was this ingrained fear about politics as in martial law. Maybe because our parents, too, were so deeply ingrained in that and part of that generation and it was passed down to us. And so it’s hard for us to think about politics in a different way.

But because the Sunflower Movement really broke those taboos or fears and broke it open, I think young people think about politics very differently and I think that’s really had more lasting impact than Tsai Ing-Wen or the NPP. Which is why there’s participation in official politics or official policy, or why people organize book clubs, and different high schoolers were thinking about social issues. So I think that’s what’s really amazing about it.

Solidarity rally for 330 in New York City. Photo credit: Enbion Micah Aan

Brian Hioe:  What do you think that social movements activists are doing now, three years later? Because many people have entered into politics, either running or becoming part of political parties. Or people have gone back to doing what they were doing before. What are your observations based on the people around you?

Wen Liu:  I feel like people want to go study abroad, I don’t know why. [Laughs]

Brian Hioe:  Yeah, I’m confused about that as well.

Wen Liu:  My personal guess is that people want to leave the scene for awhile. I think actually maybe that’s good. Because a movement comes up and a movement falls apart and that’s fine. That’s usually how it is. If there’s no urgent issue that unites everyone, I think that’s fine and it is not necessary to keep the form, because that’s just how mass movement works. And I think a lot of the grassroots organizations that were formed from the Sunflower Movement now are defunct too?

Brian Hioe:  Most of them are defunct at this point. It’s quite striking.

Wen Liu:  Yeah, so that’s kind of what happened with Occupy Wall Street, too, right? Some groups become NGOs. And others become defunct. That’s what I sort of observe happening. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s good or bad, it’s just how it works.

Personally, I’m still figuring out what to do next. I’m still very confused with my relationship to activism. It’s just surprising to me that so many people want to study abroad, or joined FAPA, or etc. And I’m just wondering, where is that sense of anti-imperialist critique! [Laughs] Who are those folks?

Brian Hioe:  I feel like they’ve just gone back to the labor movement. Some of them haven’t been very active either.

Wen Liu:  My own question is why there hasn’t been a more solidified anarchist crowd or a different kind of socialist crowd, apart from different international organizations that want to come to Taiwan and do that. The Sunflower Movement perhaps changed how leftists globally think about Taiwan, that not just as a the US’ little brother or whatever.

But why hasn’t there been more of this alternative way of doing politics? And I feel like the NGO way of doing it or the political party of doing it still feel like the only options for whatever reason. I don’t know why. Maybe something about the conditions in Taiwan.

Photo credit: Enbion Micah Aan

Brian Hioe:  I feel some groups are very subcultural, actually, so they don’t really have any ambition to grow bigger or take power.

So how do you think China looks at the Sunflower Movement? Or the political circumstances of Taiwan after the Sunflower Movement in the three years since?

Wen Liu:  With China, obviously I don’t understand what the government is thinking. I think they are a little bit terrified, which is why if you listen to news or look at WeChat, it’s become harder to have any sort of cross-strait connection. The trial of Lee Ming-Che is a case in which they related want to cut down any sort of connection. And there’s a lot of terror around students who want to study abroad in Taiwan. That the government strongly recommends that they not come to Taiwan.

There’s a lot of fear and misinformation being created and that even if you talk to Chinese students abroad, I feel that not a lot of them really understand what went on during the Sunflower Movement. Or why that is significant. I feel like there is even more of a disconnect between Taiwan and China. In my own sort of political scene, with LGBTQ activists, I think that is also sort of depressing.

Not only because of Taiwan. But also just because of China’s recent crackdowns on all sorts of activities, including dating apps, and etc. It’s also a really terrifying time in the US, with very crazy racist and anti-trans hatred. I feel like the bigger nations, the bigger players in the world, are going through this very extreme round of nationalistic, protectionist politics. I don’t know what Taiwan’s role would be in that.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that there could be another movement like the Sunflower Movement down the line in Taiwan? If so, how?

Wen Liu:  That’s a hard question. [Laughs] To be honest, I can’t imagine it. Do I want there to be one? I don’t know if I want there to be one either, because I think people are so exhausted. A lot of people are still recovering from the Sunflower Movement. People are still trying to recover from hurt in the movement. If we really want another movement or something large-scale like that, I think we need to have better political organizations that are equipped for dealing with it and the more nuanced debates in the movement.

You can think about the Sunflower Movement and how it happened because of the decades of building up through student organizations and NGO work, so it took a long time. So I don’t know what the next movement would be for Taiwan. To me, I think we really need to solve the issues around Taiwan’s relationship with the US. Not just with China, but also the US, which may depend on the situation of the US during that time.

Right now, it’s harder to imagine just because there’s this crazy, unpredictable president. [Laughs] Everything is just so unpredictable, nobody knew—or at least I didn’t—that Trump would get elected. All these crazy things. That there’s an actual white supremacist movement in the mainstream. We didn’t know that in 2016. So I just feel it’s really hard to say. And I feel that if Taiwan really wants to have a movement, we have to deal with labor, and we need to have political organization, and we need to think about race more deeply.

Brian Hioe:  Along those lines, do you think the Sunflower Movement could have an impact on international social movements? A lot of people talk about Hong Kong, but not just with regards to Hong Kong?

Wen Liu:  I feel like Hong Kong is obviously a great connection, but outside of Hong Kong, I really seen something so impactful. To be honest, Taiwan may have gotten more international recognition, but I do not see a lot of impact in terms of the international leftists seeing what is going on. Maybe people are just too busy. There’s all this craziness in Syria just last year and all this craziness about North Korea now and the US itself now is a mess.

Photo credit: Enbion Micah Aan

I feel like people are just too stretched out and there are so many different issues that seem divided and we don’t have a cohesive analysis to bring everything together yet. And Taiwan, as a country that already exists in such a marginal space, even if it was a very big event for us in Taiwan, and I wanted it to be bigger in the international stage, but we haven’t done a good job integrating all these different issues. We’re trying to do that with the APIPS coalition, but that’s also hard to do. International solidarity work sometimes just doesn’t have a lot of impact, to be honest, I think.

Brian Hioe:  Do you have any closing commentary?

Wen Liu:  I feel like I sounded very pessimistic! [Laughs]

Brian Hioe:  [Laughs] I feel like most people have had similar responses. Nobody says that it was an overwhelming success and so forth. I think that’s probably being realistic. My own assessments are more or less that.

Wen Liu:  So yeah, I don’t know. It’s been three years, so I think right now is a cooling down phase, which occurs in any movement. You’re coming down now from all the passion and height of that and the immediate aftermath, such as elections. And now we’re really in a more reflexive time. I don’t think this is really going to be forever, but my sense is that a lot of people are in this stage.

What else can we do? What’s the next thing? Where can we invest our energy in, besides just joining political parties? How do we create new discourse and how do we communicate that to people outside of Taiwan? I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but I just wonder if there’s platform that people can actually talk about this together, outside of academia, or the all the drama of the social movement scene.