What Was New About The Sunflower Movement In Terms Of Taiwanese Identity?

What Was New About The Sunflower Movement In Terms Of Taiwanese Identity?

The sharp distinction between Sunflower Movement participants and older forms of Taiwanese identity is that young people today orient towards an open, pluralistic form of civic nationalism

What is prominent in the Sunflower Movement is that young people by and large overwhelmingly identify with Taiwan and not China. This surpasses divisions of waishengren (外省人) and benshengren (本省人), of Hakka (客家人) and other Han groups (漢人), and of indigenous (原住民) and Han.

The Sunflower Movement saw the participation of all groups. While some accused the Sunflower Movement’s pro-Taiwan stance as benshengren nationalism, for example, the head of security for the Legislative Yuan occupation was the son of the former head of security for Chiang Ching-Kuo (蔣經國). The attempted occupation of the Executive Yuan which took place a few days after the beginning of the movement on the night of March 23rd also saw an attempt to occupy the Control Yuan by a group of indigenous students, as well.

As such, some have billed the Sunflower Movement to be the first post-ethnic social movement in Taiwan. Because while the Taiwanese democratization movement also saw the participation of a minority of waishengren, including some who did not only oppose the KMT but also identified with Taiwan instead of Chinaone does well to keep in mind that “Nylon” Cheng Nan-Jung (鄭南榕), possibly the most famous martyr of Taiwan’s democracy movement, was waishengren—but this was not on the scale of the Sunflower Movement, in which third generation waishengren participated alongside their benshengren counterparts and individuals of other ethnic descent. Namely, the third generation of waishengren in Taiwan increasingly identify exclusively as Taiwanese and not Chinese, and distinctions between waishengren and benshengren are no longer as sharp as in the past.

Indeed, outside of the fact that divisions between benshengren and waishengren seem to have been transcended with the Sunflower Movement, the Sunflower Movement also marked significant amounts of Hakka and indigenous breaking with support for the pan-Blue camp because of the possible negative effects on Taiwan. Namely, despite being among the most underprivileged groups in Taiwan, Hakka and indigenous traditionally voted KMT. This was not only because of fear of racial discrimination from benshengren nationalism, but because in spite of the political oppression, the KMT seemed to offer a more stable political alternative than the DPP, which could not maintain stable relations with China.

Nevertheless, today’s young people break from the political assumptions of their parents. Likewise, with the pressing threat to Taiwanese democratic freedoms from China next door, taking decisive action to defend Taiwan probably seems like an imperative.

And we can see from the Sunflower Movement that the prevailing sentiment among young people is an open form of pluralist civic nationalism, rather than exclusionary form of ethno-nationalism grounded upon the ethnic identity of any single one of the many ethnicities which inhabit Taiwan today. While benshengren ethno-nationalist politics had been leveraged on in the past by members of the pan-Green camp as a way to incite the masses to rise up against KMT rule, this was something rejected during the movement itself, despite attempts by some groups to introduce ethno-nationalism into the movement’s discourse.

All those who identified with Taiwan were welcome to participate in the movement, without barriers being drawn for exclusion. Even some Chinese students participated, with the view that Taiwanese democracy was something worth standing up for, and they were not rejected from the movement just because they happened to be Chinese rather than Taiwanese, in spite of the the threat to Taiwan’s de facto independence from China. Taiwanese identity is firmly confident in itself now to the point that it does not need to draw borders in order to define its own identity, or in contradistinction to another form of identity. And so the result is the civic nationalism of the Sunflower Movement, which allows the movement to be seen as part of the international wave of progressive civic nationalist movements which we also see with the rise of contemporary Scottish or Catalan nationalism, and their attendant independence movements.


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Photo credit: Brian Hioe