Interview: Stéphane Corcuff

Stéphane Corcuff is an associate professor at the University of Lyon (Lyon Institute of Political Studies) in France. The following interview was conducted in Taipei on November 2nd, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  As an observer on the ground during the Sunflower Movement, did you anticipate anything like that beforehand? 

Stéphane Corcuff:  A book reviewer for Ketagalan Media wrote in 2016 that I had forecasted the Sunflower Movement in my book on Taiwan’s geopolitical liminality (中華鄰國—臺灣閾境性). The reality is that I wrote in my 2011 book that Ma’s policy of engaging China would fail if it did not protect Taiwan’s interests and sovereignty, and would be opposed by the civil society. But of course I did not forecast anything such as the takeover of the legislature and a movement of that amplitude. When the Sunflower Movement started, we knew from opinion polls that Ma had become significantly unpopular already, and understood from recent social movements that activists were now determined in voicing their opposition loud again, as during the early years of his first mandate.

Yet, it was difficult to anticipate that Taiwan’s Parliament could be taken. As far as I know, those whose actually carried out the action were eager to do something, but were not sure that they would do so much on that day at that time. In addition, an occupation of that kind had not yet happened anywhere else in the world since the beginning of the Occupy Movement. But it is true that when the old antagonism between Ma Ying-jeou and Wang Jin-pyng resurfaced openly with the September 2013 Ma-Wang feud, I had the feeling that Ma’s times might be over, and that the rest of his mandate could be agonizing.

Photo credit: Felix the Bear/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  How do you understand previous social movements? There were various single-issue movements, and it’s very interesting to me how they came together in this one movement.

Stéphane Corcuff:  The Sunflower Movement was not exactly the first one to integrate various issues. There was one just a few months before, on Oct. 20, 2013, which was very similar in terms of themes: the Citizen Watch movement on Jinan Road, next to the Legislative Yuan. It did not have that amplitude, but it was quite close in terms of the main core criticisms addressed at Ma Ying-jeou’s for allegedly not respecting the rule of law, denouncing police excesses, disrespect for fair judgements of justice, and black box negotiations with China—the expression was already in use then. The peaceful protesters, following no party line and with no flag of any political party, already requested constitutional reform, called for people’s empowerment, criticized the defects of representative democracy, and directly attacked Ma Ying-Jeou for taking liberties with the rule of law. In that sense, the Citizen Watch protest was already a civic protest.

Brian Hioe:  How do you understand this kind of dissatisfaction building up? It seems very comprehensive in terms of dissatisfaction against Ma Ying-jeou’s governance.

Stéphane Corcuff:  There were many issues involved across the spectrum of single-issue protests, but there is a way to understand them as a whole, even though we all know that many groups opposed each others on several issues: the fact that Ma disregarded a growing societal consensus on the old issue of national identity and on Taiwan’s relation to China. In front of a rising China, Ma apparently made a bet, to be understood from within his ideological worldview of Taiwan’s Chineseness and with in mind the illegitimacy, in his eyes, of an independent national entity called Taiwan: That by not insisting on its sovereignty, Taiwan could place itself ultimately be in a position to negotiate a specific and advantageous relation with China in a new economic world.

There was a degree of naiveté in such a strategic thinking. Chiang Ching-kuo and Lee Teng-hui  had been utterly conscious of Beijing’s refusal of a peaceful coexistence. True, the China they dealt with was not the world’s second economy. But didn’t the fact that an irredentist China had become only much stronger make Ma’s bet anything else than realistic?

There might be three explanations for this strategic choice, which ulcerated those many who see Taiwan as a nation of its own. A first reason could be the personality of Ma himself: He is a Mainlander imbued with a sense of Chinese grandeur, and might be one of those who would prefer to see the ROC they defend finally disappear than seeing Taiwan permanently independent from China. A second reason might be found in the condition of his election as KMT president in 2005: chosen by as a default candidate by opposed KMT factions, Ma had to find a historical role for himself, especially as President of the Republic, after all what his predecessors had done, Chen Shui-bian included. A third reason is probably to be found in the game of representative democracy, in which politicians, when elaborating platforms and party lines, often draw unnecessary boundaries between themselves and other parties or predecessors, leading Ma to depart from Lee’s model of cross-straits relations, made of rejection of any form of Chinese pressure and seeking better international recognition as the ROC, which seems to be the only viable pragmatic model in cross-straits relations for now.

Ma’s bet of course failed, as China’s military pressure increased during his mandate, and as Beijing did not let Taiwan gain anything permanently on the world stage—who else but Ma could have possibly though otherwise? While proof of this failure accumulated, Ma appeared in his second mandate either as increasingly estranged from the reality, or conscious of the impasse in which he had taken Taiwan, but enable to face it, lest he would acknowledge a huge failure.

Photo credit: Harry Li/Flickr/CC

This bet failed to convince Taiwanese and fired back at Ma, ending his presidency in a humiliating way, leaving behind the figure of a greek tragedy, his choices inexorably confronted by history and leading to his total destruction and abandonment by all. If Ma Ying-Jeou certainly did not try to sell Taiwan to China, the reasons why he omitted to duly and fully state the KMT’s official stance on the “One China issue” (“Each side its interpretation”) when meeting Xi Jinping in Singapore in November 2016 indicates the possibility a trade-off between the CCP and the KMT,  an omission agreed on in advance in return for the organization of a summit that China refused since the Lee Teng-hui era, and that Ma desperately needed to enhance his very weak historical stature, just a few months before leaving his position. Other than big publicity for Taiwan, the summit lead to not nothing, and I have hard time believing this omission was a mistake.

Ma Ying-jeou earnestly tried to pursue and reconcile goals that were contradictory: protecting the status quo, seeking a good relation with China, and safeguarding the possibility of a future unification. He tried to invent a model alternative to Lee’s hegemonic one, and it proved a dead end. He attempted to re-Sinicize national education, deconstruct the Taiwanese national through cultural policies and halt the KMT’s Taiwanization; by doing so, he sidelined the KMT of Taiwan’s historical path, leading the party to destructing himself with debates among extremists instead of moderates, on the question of identity and relations with China. Many in Taiwan were taken aback by the regular compromises that Ma accepted in terms of sovereignty, and all became increasingly conscious of his failed campaign promises. This is the context in which militants of different causes voiced their opposition to Ma. This undeniable helped groups with very different social agendas to congregated emergency over Taiwan’s deteriorating situation. This is well summarized in the comment of a netizen on twitter just a few hours after the invasion of Parliament: “Too much is too much”. S/he did not specify which issue(s) made him/her so dissatisfied: it had become an indistinct whole.

Brian Hioe:  How do you understand this rise of Taiwanese identity? Because people talk about the Sunflower Movement as a civic nationalist movement versus past, less inclusive forms of Taiwanese identity, per se. What do you think were the factors that contributed towards this?

Stéphane Corcuff:  The Taiwanese identity seems shaped, among other factors, by a long-lasting and structural difficulty by continental powers on China to understand Taiwan from other than a continental point of view. Of course, it would not be realistic to expect any government on China, whether Manchu or Chinese, Republican or Communist, to adequately understand Taiwan from a point of view other that this one: continental, poorly informed, and, often times, as history reveals, with a mixture of pride, anxiety, contempt…and even unease in front of forms of dependency of the Mainland over the island, whether in grain supply (as for large parts of south China in the 18th century), or strategically (as today, when China views Taiwan’s autonomy as a strategic threat and blocking its access to deep oceans).

Chinese views of Taiwan are simply arrogant because they are ignorant, and they actually say more about China itself than about Taiwan. They are expressed within ideological frames, based on distorted historiographies, connected to political agendas, and are rooted in preconceived beliefs of Chinese grandeur that deprive China of a safe and sound analysis of Taiwan. And most importantly, they basically never care about Taiwan, only considering Chinese interests. Taiwanese know well that they are the subjects of aggressive power politics and of psychological fantasy we should simply never forget that any form of irredentism is a form of collective psychological disorder. So nationalism in Taiwan is not only a question of loving Taiwan but also of being frustrated at the way China looks at Taiwan.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that this has not changed after the Sunflower Movement? That China still doesn’t know Taiwan’s situation?

Stéphane Corcuff:  Being informed about something and understanding what you are informed about are two different things. Understanding the situation and adopting appropriate policies are again two different things. And adopting appropriate policies can be at odds with your core objectives, they are again two different things. If China wants to conquer Taiwanese hearts, it has to stop denying Taiwan’s subjectivity and suppressing Taiwanese sovereignty, which probably will not happen anytime soon. This contradiction is for China a self-inflicted pain and Beijing’s Taiwan policy has become, after the KMT played that role during the dictatorship era, the main fuel for the Taiwanese independence movement. The KMT caused it unwillingly, and now China perpetuates it. The obsession of Chinese people for unification, deeply entrenched in several thousand years of political thinking, has historically created its own enemies anywhere Han people later invaded their neighbors, whether Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongols.

Brian Hioe:  So what do you think was different about the Sunflower Movement versus previous movements? The young people took the center-stage. Sometimes people discuss this as an inclusive movement of civic nationalism versus an ethnic nationalism. And also it’s striking that young people are center-left usually. They tend to be progressive on a lot of issues. What is your take on this?

Photo credit: Abby Chen/Flickr/CC

Stéphane Corcuff:  The Sunflower Movement was both a civic and a national movement. I would not indeed call it a nationalist movement: it paid attention to not expressing ideas too clearly about Taiwanese independence and reforming the constitution to give Taiwan a constitution drafted in Taiwan, even though these were underlying debates and occasionally surfaced: it would have been irrelevant, as the movement was a unique opportunity to discuss many social, economic, political issues with debates about free trade. If we cannot say it was nationalistic, it was undeniably a national movement, as the question of black box negotiation with China was central, more than during the short Citizen Watch protest.

Brian Hioe:  Along those lines, what do you think the influence of the movement, concretely, has been? Obviously, there’s the election of Tsai Ing-wen and so forth, but how would you describe that? 

Stéphane Corcuff:  I do not consider the election of Tsai Ing-wen as the result of the Sunflower Movement. First thing, that would be very unfair towards Tsai Ing-wen herself and the capacity of the DPP to, again, become an attractive party for electoral voters. I do not think that she has to take so much credit from the movement. The election of Tsai Ing-wen as to see with two things:one, the attractiveness of her program, what she was proposing, what she was saying, her personality, which perhaps finally led Taiwanese to give her a chance; second, the incapacity of Ma Ying-jeou to understand Taiwanese and to lead Taiwanese in a more moderate way, in a more pragmatic way, putting Taiwan’s interests first and to protect Taiwan’s hardly won democracy, rule of law, etc.

Now, what consequences did this movement really have? Of course, everyone knows, the creation of new parties and the arrival of the New Power Party in the parliament. This of course has direct links. We know the channels, what happened, who was elected, we all know that. The Movement has also awakened young people to the necessity to think by themselves in political behavior and to not vote along the lines of their parents. It has also raised  the issue of the absolute necessity of having a legal framework to control negotiations with China. And it has reopened the question of constitutional reform and the debate on how to craft a democracy 2.0 in front of the limitations of representative democracy. Not to mention the anti-nuclear movement and etc.

Brian Hioe:  You were collecting art during the Sunflower Movement and documenting it. Did you have any observations from that, such as themes you could see? There were a lot of images available online which I went through.

Stéphane Corcuff:  I did not collect art, I need to make a clarification. I established a team and took care of collecting all elements posted on walls, barriers, doors, pillars, the structure of the overpass, on Qingdao East Road: stickers, banners, drawings, leaflets, pieces of art including electric art installations, literally everything, thousands of elements that we sorted onsite, and conveyed in more than twenty boxes to Academia Sinica. Once I decided to start collecting (and choosing the right moment was a high stake), we ‘scanned’ the street meter after meter. We took off all tape used to hang elements. It was a big job, and after us it was like after a crickets’ feast: there was nothing left. We did not deal with what was inside parliament.

Under the circumstances, and with our limited manpower and the necessity to act swiftly and at the right moment, I had to make the decision to concentrate ourselves on one street only, and to collect fully what was there, in order to have a complete sample rather than elements picked up here and there on debatable methodological basis. And so I decided to not take care of the three other streets, Zhenjiang, Zhongshan South, and Jinan. I did not touch anything there, because I selected Qingdao East Road. Having a fully complete sample is very rare in the social sciences. Whether that sample has been kept as a distinct sample in Sinica, when it was digitalized and inventoried, and now in the collections of Tainan’s National Museum of History, I don’t know yet, but I am far from being sure. And the opposite would be regrettable, because what was inside and what was outside were different things (and different streets had different things also).

Now, regarding trends or any new things in art production, I would say that art took a large part. Not only art as political irony, but also pure art. I was for instance struck by the capacity of people to reuse the paper boxes that were used to deliver water, goods, or anything. They were first used as mats to sit on the street. Then, people started to use them to make drawings. There is a totally new form of contemporary street art made of paper box materials. That was so fascinating. And we collected a lot of them, all to be stored at Academia Sinica. Also one dimension was very striking: the amount of personal attacks on Ma Ying-jeou, comparing him to Hitler, mocking some of his attitudes or alleged sexual preferences. Something which was very different there was the direct evocation of his possible homosexuality: it was everywhere. But it was a mistake, a very mean and irrelevant way to attack him, in fact we could even interpret it as homophobic: why should Ma be mocked as homosexual because people do not support his policies? This is his private life, it has not to be discussed in public.

That was disappointing and from this point of view, the young people who drew these caricatures did not prove very mature nor open-minded, even though it raised an issue, the possible influence buying legal frames of King Pu-Tsung. It was shocking to see how direct and insulting some things were written and drawn.

Brian Hioe:  I was shocked as well. Continuing, do you think something like the Sunflower Movement could happen again in Taiwan in the future?

Photo credit: Charlie Chang/Flickr/CC

Stéphane Corcuff:  It could happen in several cases: if Taiwan once again has a lasting government, inept and incapable of understanding Taiwan from its own society’s psyche; or by activists eager to reenact the occupation to glorify themselves. I wrote a piece in late May 2016 on how a group of radicals from the KMT tried a pathetic reenactment of the invasion against Tsai, just a few days after her inauguration, in my eyes to manage the trauma of their terrible defeat, a paper in which I coined the expression “mimetic distortion” to characterize the KMT’s strategies on this. The Sunflower Movement has also unleashed the power of the connected individual. It is not impossible that some activists who are very impatient would, indeed, try again to invade the parliament or any other big public office.

In this era of plurality, of connected movements, of political activism, we cannot deny that activists are sometimes impatient and that governments are there to take into consideration the interests of different parties and different parts of civil society, and not only the interests of one group. If one day, the parliament is occupied again, we should check to see whether its indeed a very small minority that managed to do that, or wether it is really a deeper movement uniting different factions and groups and civil groups against a power disregarding their own internal divisions, which is precisely what happened under Ma Ying-jeou with different groups that often disagreed on many important issues but united against him.

Brian Hioe:  Last question then. What kind of influence do you think the Sunflower Movement could have on the international world or international social movements?

Stéphane Corcuff:  I think that, unfortunately, its still mostly forgotten by those who had the chance to see news about it on television abroad. This can be easily understood. Taiwan is in general very poorly understood in the world and news are invading our televisions and newspapers all the time. And now our social media networks. So it is very difficult for people actually far away when they’re not concerned with it to realize that it was actually very big. Three weeks is long when you are there. Three weeks is long when you are a president, as the main target.

But three weeks is just short when you are abroad, far away, and you don’t care about Taiwan. It must be something very huge in order for you to notice that, “Oh, something is happening.” Like the assassination of a president or a terrorist attack or a coup. I hope that through your work and our work and all the work of people who write on it will make it well-known, and people will know that they can learn from it and get some inspiration to reform democracy and to improve it. I will start teaching in the University of Lyon (at Saint-Etienne) in January 2018 a new course called “The Geopolitics of Mobilization: The Occupy Movement” in which I will teach a specific class on the Sunflower movement. Because its actors made it an astonishing and amazing event.