Was The Sunflower Movement A Radical Democracy?

Was The Sunflower Movement A Radical Democracy?

The phrase “radical democracy” had previously been an avowed aspiration of some of the leadership of the Sunflower Movement

The phrase “radical democracy” (基進民主) was an avowed aspiration of many of the participants of the Sunflower Movement. In particular, much of the key leadership of the movement were originally graduate students at National Tsing Hua University (國立清華大學). Chen Wei-Ting (陳為廷) and Wei Yang (魏揚) were both members of a group called Radical Notes (基進筆記) convened by Chen, which published a journal, also called Radical Notes. Part of the avowed aspiration of this journal was to realize “Radical Democracy,” as a means of democracy which was transparent, clear, and participatory realized democracy in a way that Taiwan’s present democracy did not. The “Zero Two Society” (零貳社會) led by Lin Fei-Fan (林飛帆), similarly aspired towards the creation of a new society.

Chen, not to mention many other youth activists, found the Occupy Wall Street Movement and its radically open direct democracy inspiring, Chen having been a participant in the Occupy Taipei demonstration in Taipei 101 in 2011. Likewise, Wei Yang was the third generation of a prominent family of Taiwanese leftists, his grandfather being the famous leftist author Yang Kui (楊逵) and his mother the historian and literary critic, Yang Cui (楊翠). And so leftist ideals about a radical form of democracy were appealing to Chen, Wei, and other Sunflower Movement leaders.

Photo credit: Abby Chen/Flickr/CC

But was the Sunflower Movement a radical democracy? That is hard to say. Certainly, taking to the streets in protest is a radically different form of political participation than simply voting. And some would actually see forcibly occupying the Legislative Yuan, even if this was in order to demonstrate what was seen as an undemocratic act of the government and done as a form of non-violent disobedience, as undemocratic.

Likewise, the central leadership of the Sunflower Movement had its critics, who saw its actions as lacking transparency, undemocratic, and not reflective of the wishes as a whole, particularly because much of the leadership formed out of pre-existing personal relationships. Some accused the decision-making process of the movement leadership as being in itself a “black box” process lacking transparency in an apparent movement to oppose a government which just did that, perhaps a way in which the movement did not fully break from the existing structure of politics.

Photo credit: Felix the Bear/Flickr/CC

But, apart from how we can point to the left-leaning ideals of many of the Sunflower Movement’s leaders as reflective of the progressive views of Taiwanese civil society writ large, perhaps all this reflects the core importance of democracy in Taiwanese society, in which democratic freedoms such as the right to freely vote for one’s representative politicians were only won through hard work and the political struggle of the Taiwanese democracy movement. In periods of times in which the will of the people seems blocked and elected officials do not seem to carrying out the wishes of the Taiwanese people, there seems little option but to take to the streets in protest and realize democracy in movement. And the tail end of the movement saw calls for “civic constitutional discussions” and Occupy Wall Street-style general assemblies were held by the movement leadership as a new means of decision-making which they hoped to promote in Taiwan. We can understand similarly the longstanding movement to realize direct referendums in Taiwan as a form of direct democracy. 

This may be what “radical democracy” is and it would be something Taiwan has a long history of; sometimes protest, in fact, seems to be the only viable model of carrying out political change in Taiwan. Alternatively, one can suggest that the aspiration towards “radical democracy” contains an aspiration towards direct democracy, as suggested in the proposal that a cross-straits oversight bill would allow civil society groups say in future cross-strait agreements, and the fact that, with the aid of participant lawyers, the Legislative Yuan occupiers drafted and proposed this to the legislature themselves, as a means of calling on legislators to answer directly to the public which elected them. One can see similarly in recall campaigns for corrupt legislators, as pushed for by Democracy Kuroshio and the Appendectomy Project.


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Anti-nuclear demonstrators on April 27th, 2014 on Zhongxiao West Road. Photo credit: Brian Hioe