Was The Sunflower Movement An Anti-Free Trade Movement?

Was The Sunflower Movement An Anti-Free Trade Movement?

While opposition to free trade was only expressed by some occupiers, the Sunflower Movement can be situated in context of global movements reacting to conditions engendered by free trade in recent years

There were those individuals who were participants of the Sunflower Movement who explicitly opposed policies of free trade and would oppose free trade agreements (FTAs) signed by Taiwan regardless of what country that agreement was signed withwhether that be with China, America, or any other country. With regard to this, we do well to remember that free trade is a name given to a specific set of economic policies calling for the breakdown of economic barriers between nations, as advanced through FTAs and other international agreements.

Opposition to the set of policies of free trade, then, is different from opposition to all trade together. Critics of free trade commonly point to free trade as allowing larger countries to oppress smaller countries and as engendering systemic inequalities in their social effects. Yet, either way, it is clear that individuals who opposed all free trade in the Sunflower Movement were a minority.

We can situate the Sunflower Movement in the broader context of international social movements in past years which have consisted of young people reacting against social conditions in which they are denied opportunities. Precarious labor is on the rise the world over among young people and globally, we see the deterioration of stable work benefits in favor of forms of temp work, as we see in the rise of the so-called gig economy. The most famous of these movements may be Occupy Wall Street, which broke out in Fall 2011, in New York City, and evolved into the Occupy Movement across the United States.

This is true of Taiwan as well. A university graduate, for example, makes only 22,000 NTD per month, which is not enough to pay rent and survive. Young people also face expensive tuition fees. While the young are sometimes lambasted as the soft “Strawberry Tribe” (草莓族) or as the “Bone-sucking Tribe” (啃老族) which remains dependent on their parents, it simply is that the current generation of Taiwanese young people feels disenfranchised and disprivileged.

How does this tie into the rise of the Sunflower Movement, then? There is, for one, the sociological tendency for expressions of ethnic or national identity rise as a reaction to economic inequality. This was certainly a factor in the rise of Taiwanese identity as led to the explosion of the Sunflower Movement. And another factor is that young people were unhappy with pro-China policies of the Ma administration which had not failed to improve the situation for Taiwan’s young people, but have on the other hand been deteriorating of Taiwan’s political freedoms.

Yet while there is no denying that these were major events which contributed to the development of the Sunflower Movement, the Sunflower Movement is not reducible to purely economic discontents either. More broadly, probably what came to exist in Taiwan was a lacking sense of democracy, inclusive of the loss of democracy in people’s ability to make economic decisions, and inclusive of the sense that Taiwan’s democracy faced threats from China and its proxies in the KMT. This was what led to the Sunflower Movement, an attempt to retake Taiwan’s democracy.


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Photo credit: Brian Hioe