The Sunflower Movement was directly sparked by anger over passage of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement with China. Anger was both over the agreement itself and the process by which it was passed. Namely, Taiwan faces political, economic, and military threats to its sovereignty from China, and the CSSTA itself would have opened up Taiwan’s service industry up to investment from China. This could have allowed Chinese economic influence to enter Taiwan in a way deleterious to Taiwan’s democratic freedoms, much as had already occurred with Taiwan’s media.
The KMT, the pro-unification party in Taiwanese politics and the former authoritarian party that constituted a one party state during the martial law period, was who sought to pass the trade deal, underneath the administration of Ma Ying-Jeou. Especially angering was that the passage by which the trade deal was passed was an opaque “black box,” and that the CSSTA was passed in under thirty seconds in a manner aimed at circumventing legislative oversight over the bill. But much of the deeper roots of the movement return to unresolved issues regarding Taiwan’s geopolitical status.
Taiwan’s international status in the world is potentially a unique one. Namely, Taiwan is in all respects a de facto independent nation-state. Taiwan is not simply a “self-ruled island,” as it is sometimes termed in the media, but has a fully functioning government, an independent economy, and has its own currency, and military. Taiwan possesses all of the characteristics necessary to be deemed an independent nation-state.
However, few countries recognize Taiwan as an independent nation-state. China continues to make territorial claims over Taiwan and, because of China’s being many times larger than Taiwan in terms of size, population, and economy, the majority of the world’s countries do not acknowledge Taiwan as its own nation.
Taiwan’s inability to claim that it is an independent country from China also stems from that Taiwan is officially known as the Republic of China, as contrasted with the name China is officially known as, the People’s Republic of China. The People’s Republic of China (中華人民共和國) and the Republic of China (中華民國) have never been the same entity. In fact, the present Republic of China government which exists in Taiwan today was founded by the Chinese Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (國民黨), which fled to Taiwan from China after its defeat to the Chinese Communist Party in the Chinese Civil War in 1949.
There, the KMT set up a government-in-exile, and the KMT continued to refer to itself as the rightful government of China. However, as part of the KMT’s claims to be the rightful rulers of China, the KMT likewise claimed that Taiwan is and has always been a part of China.
The KMT, which like the CCP was an authoritarian political party, continued to rule Taiwan for some decades afterwards, with Chiang Kai-Shek (蔣中正) ruling as dictator and his son Chiang Ching-Kuo (蔣經國) taking over after the elder Chiang’s death. And for many of these decades, the international community in fact recognized the Republic of China rather than the People’s Republic of China, back when it seemed possible that the KMT still had the possibility of retaking the Chinese mainland. Yet America led the way for other members of the international community de-recognizing the Republic of China in favor of the Republic of China after President Jimmy Carter of the United States broke off relations with the Republic of China and instead established relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1979.
In truth, the last time Taiwan and the Chinese mainland were governed by the same political government was in 1895, some 120 years ago and a period of time inclusive of all of Taiwanese modern history. Likewise, at that point in time, imperial China only ever controlled parts of Taiwan. We also do well that, whether the Republic of China or People’s Republic of China, these are fundamentally modern nation-states. The People’s Republic of China may like to claim that it is 5,000 year old China and that, consequently, Taiwan has always been part of China, but in truth the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. The PRC is a 70 year old country which claims to be a 5,000 year old country, then. Perhaps to invert Lucian Pye’s famous dictum, China is a nation-state which claims to be a civilization.
But to date, entirely apart from that China has never given up its claims over Taiwan, Taiwan has been unable to shrug off the Republic of China framework which continues to bind Taiwan to China. Namely, in spite of the fact that one party rule by the KMT ended with the democratization movement, the KMT was allowed to exist as a political party within Taiwan. The price paid for a peaceful transition of power with the end of the authoritarian period was also allowing a number of individuals complicit or outright participants with KMT authoritarianism remain free and may even continue to be active in politics.
And the KMT and members of the pan-Blue camp continue to be firmly resistant to the idea of an independent Taiwan. In part, members of the KMT and pan-Blue camp continue to see Taiwan as part of China for reasons of identity, seeing as they are the descendants of those who fled to Taiwan from China following the KMT’s defeat to the CCP in 1949. Such individuals may identify with the Chinese mainland more strongly than they do Taiwan, in spite of the fact that they were born and raised in Taiwan.
However, in the past decade, with China’s political and economic rise, Taiwanese businessmen conducting trade with China increasingly have economic motives for wanting to facilitate the economic and political integration of Taiwan and China. Particularly for those who never identified with Taiwan to begin with, it is easy to wish to sell out Taiwan to China for personal profit then. And, in spite of the fact that those who identify with China instead of Taiwan are a minority in Taiwan, some have no compunction about forcing their sense of identification onto the majority population of Taiwan, never mind what that would mean in terms of the loss of Taiwan’s hard earned democratic freedoms.
In this way, many of the contributing factors to the Sunflower Movement originate in the lingering traces of authoritarianism which still persist in Taiwan. Perhaps we should not be so hasty in regarding democratic transitions of government as something which ever finishes, then, seeing as the specter of resurgent authoritarianism is always there, and the lingering traces of authoritarianism fade quite slowly.
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