Interview: Huang Yan-Ru

Huang Yan-Ru was a member of the Black Island Youth Front and currently works as a legislative assistant in the Legislative Yuan. The following interview was conducted on November 7th, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  How did you begin participating in social movements in Taiwan? What kind of issues did you participate in and why did you participate?

Huang Yan-Ru:  In the beginning, I was a regular student, studying social work in Taipei. In Taipei, the anti-media monopoly movement began. There were, in fact, very few students in the anti-media monopoly movement. If there was 1,000 people, people were like, “Wow, that’s so great!”. At that time, it was like that. So later on, this fire spread to Fu Jen, with the appearance of different social movement groups.

When that happened, I went on-site. Some protests had fewer people, because students are more fluid. So I made friends in the movement. Later on, people that could stay in the movement longer, became those known in social movement circles. At the time, I got to know Lin Fei-Fan and Chen Wei-Ting.

Later on, that was the beginning of the anti-media monopoly movement and the wind started to blow up. Different kinds of issues began to appear and students established their networks by working in these movements. Or to get to know other issues and discover that society was different from the lives they had previously experienced. It started to accumulate. There were a lot of students that would focus on social movements then.

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Up to then, with the CSSTA, students had already been working on it awhile. Lin Fei-Fan and Chen Wei-Ting were notified then, with some students notified that the CSSTA was going to pass. Early on, most students did not know about this. NGOs were among those who moved first and the students started to follow suit, with different organizations taking charge that young people involved in, such as the Shutdown But Not Shut Up, the Taiwan Labor Front, the Taiwan Rural Front, as well as Huaguang Community.

I was in the Miaoli Youth, because there were issues in Miaoli with windmills and etc. Students were busy then with a lot of situations. But to take action, in terms of charging the Legislative Yuan, this was the third time. This was the third time we had climbed over the wall of the Legislative Yuan, since we had done this many times before.

The earliest protests about the CSSTA were the year before. Because the Sunflower Movement took place in 2014 and the year before in July 31st was the first time that we opposed the CSSTA. At that time, we didn’t even have an organizational name. We first took action to oppose the CSSTA before we came up with a team or organization.

We charged over the wall, then found that we kept being asked by the media what our organization was called. So we had to hold a meeting to decide our name. People came up with some strange names. We only decided we would be called the Black Island Youth Front later on. Before, we were called the “Time-Space Expansion Youth” or something like that. [Laughs]

Only later on was there the Sunflower Movement. So the Sunflower Movement was quite fun. We couldn’t carry out our original plan since there were so many students. Or so many social figures that were suddenly paying attention to the issue.

There were some issues that we couldn’t adjust for in the beginning. We didn’t plan the occupation beforehand, because everything was too fast, including the eight public hearings that were held. Everything was very rushed when we were trying to act. We had to first take action and then NGOs and professors would later provide the discourse and justification for the movement, to open up the movement for social participation.

As such, we first occupied the general assembly chamber, but nobody thought about how to divide labor. I originally thought we would be cleared out by 4 AM. But then the occupation that lasted for 24 days began. It was like that.

Brian Hioe:  What were you responsible for in the Legislative Yuan?

Huang Yan-Ru:  I was responsible for maintaining order. In the beginning, I wasn’t concerned with this. Because I was in a labor organization, I couldn’t take action freely. But after seeing people from the group go in, I went along with them.

Only on the fourth day did people start talking about dividing up labor, because it started to look as though it would be a long-term occupation. Li Jun-Da got everyone together and held a meeting and starting dividing labor. Then I ended up becoming responsible for keeping order on the first floor. Before, I was more of the type to charge and fight with the police. I was most familiar with the other people on-site who charged and I knew them, so I could organize them into a team.

Photo credit: hjw223/Flickr/CC

That’s why I took charge of the first floor.  The second floor had another person responsible for it. And there was also the materials group, the information group, the medical team. After Executive Yuan incident, there was a more detailed division of labor. There was a working group handling the labor strike, the student strike, and the international translation group. There were a lot of people.

Only until the end did we start to systematize in terms of handing out work passes. It was only then that we were certain that this system had been established. How to have a set process for maintaining the occupation.

But then there started to be controversy regarding the decision to withdraw. Because in the beginning, it was very naive, in the middle, it was also going with the flow, and when the Executive Yuan incident happened, this unexpectedly expanded the movement.

Because I was responsible for the most people, my group mostly didn’t support withdrawing. So I remember telling the core decision making group that, “Your decision to withdraw is controversial. Our view of withdrawing is different, so we’ll withdraw first.”  And we left first. So on April 10th, when they withdrew, I left a few hours earlier, picking up my stuff and leaving. Later on, people knew me as someone who didn’t agree with the core decision making group.

Brian Hioe:  What kind of feelings did you have in the Legislative Yuan?

Huang Yan-Ru:  At the time, the system was quite large. What I was responsible for was managing students’ feelings. Because if you couldn’t take of their feelings, then you can’t have workers under you. Because this movement appeared suddenly in many peoples’ lives, many people paid quite a high price. Some people skipped class, had break-ups, were kicked out of school, withdrew from school, and had arguments with their family members.

My work every day was listening to these stories. And there were people that had break-ups, found new partners, then had another break-up, and then found another partner. [Laughs] I kept hearing all these stories.

Because there was a change in the situation every day, the largest issues may have come from the Executive Yuan incident. A lot of the order maintenance team went to the Executive Yuan. You would see them in the pictures injured and bleeding. And later on, there was a break-up of trust within the Legislative Yuan. It became divided between the Executive Yuan faction and the Legislative Yuan faction and these two sides, how to connect these people’s situations, became a key part of my work.

Brian Hioe:  Are there any stories you would like to tell from inside the Legislative Yuan?

Huang Yan-Ru:  There are a lot. There was a lot of materials from the outside that came in. There were some small pleasures then. But I think that it was somewhat frustrating.

I had a lot of friends there from the Miaoli Youth who I asked to come up and they came to Taipei and help out. They wanted to send wagui inside and they asked if I got it, but I never got it. Because it had all been eaten before I got to it [Laughs]. I never got to eat this. I also discovered that my friend sent 100 orders of fried chicken to the Legislative Yuan and asked if I got it. And I didn’t get that either, it was also already eaten. I also never got to eat that.

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Later on, because we knew that they wouldn’t clear us out, and police were made to work overtime, they had the issue of that many of the police who were close to retirement didn’t want to get involved in police actions in this movement. And because of the Executive Yuan incident and the subsequent chaos, there was a wave of police retirements.

Sometimes relations became quite friendly with police in the Legislative Yuan, to the extent that I didn’t know what to do. [Laughs] Because I thought that I should be part of the team keeping order in the Legislative Yuan. We were responsible for the safety of the students.

But you know, when rank-and-file soldiers on opposite sides meet each other, they tend to become friendly. [Laughs] We also didn’t know what the higher-ups though, because we were going withdraw and they were also going to take action. And both sides were very tired, because we were both working for long hours. When they were very tired, we would clear out space for police to sleep. I remember that when some meeting rooms we let police sleep in.

As long as they did not cross a line. We occupied the general assembly chamber, as well as the second and third floor of the Legislative Yuan. We divided it up that between a door was our space and the other side was their space.

However, there were issues about this. Police were called over from all of Taiwan and they didn’t know each other and had to hold out in the Legislative Yuan. Not all police were aware of these rules that we had set. Sometimes we would argue with police. And the Legislative Yuan’s rules would change sometimes, sometimes it was one person entering and one person leaving, or only being allowed to enter and not exit or to exit and not enter.

Then there was a ladder or using a work pass or etc.. There were five different ways to enter. And if the police weren’t aware of this, I would have to come out and explain this to them again, as something we had agreed on. But police that didn’t know this would block the students and students would become angry, feeling that we had occupied the space and it was ours. And we’d raise that there were these agreements we had had beforehand, that we were using the ladder to enter, and that we weren’t pushing police. It was arguing this all day.

And because when there are a lot of people, things will happen, there were people drinking in the Legislative Yuan or eating pizza.

Or some sex toys would be sent in. We couldn’t confiscate this, because it was those advocating sexual liberation that sent them in. This was also a social movement issue. Such as a sex toy was sent in.

We also accepted it. I didn’t think there was any need to oppose this myself, but you would encounter that people would think that if this was discovered by the media, this would reflect badly on the students. But for me, those advocating sexual liberation were opposed to the stigmatization of sex from the beginning. So you have to be quite sensitive in how you handled these issues.

At that time, most members of the order keeping group were new to participating in social movements. There would be those that made mistakes, accidentally thinking that someone was an undercover police officer. Or there would be conflicts with the media. And so students or members of society would want to help out the movement, but they wouldn’t understand the make-up of the movement.

Photo credit: tenz1225/Flickr/CC

For an organizer, how do you handle this? We later established a working group to specialize in finding undercover police. We kept finding that it was the same group of people over and over again. When we noticed suspicious characters and observed them interacting with the police, and were certain that they were undercover police, we would take a picture and make a file out of it.

We had a working group devoted to this. Later on, undercover police were sort of just checking in. After being discovered, we would tell them to get out and they would be like, “Ah, okay, I’m leaving now.” We were quite rational about it and so were they. And we’d be like, “We caught eight undercover police today.” It was quite chaotic, but it was also quite interesting.

Brian Hioe:  It’s quite interesting to me because these small stories are usually what is forgotten by history

Huang Yan-Ru:  Yes, but when we get together, this is what we remember. Some people opposed withdrawing, because we hadn’t satisfied all of our demands. Or that some people would get caught in a negative emotions.

But when you look at the movement through these small stories, it no longer seems so flat. These small stories took place in between the larger events of the movement

Brian Hioe:  To change directions, why did you think you would participate in this movement? Do you think it has to do with Taiwanese identification?

Huang Yan-Ru:  There were a lot of issues that people brought into the movement. There were those that opposed free trade, for example. In the beginning, the Black Island Youth Front was opposed to free trade. That was written inner statements. But the majority of those who were pro-independence or pro-Taiwan would also bring views opposed to China into the movement.

A part of the reason for beginning the movement was not wanting to bringing into the movement the long-term issues of Taiwanese social movements. Such as the so-called focus on student leaders seen in the Wild Lily Movement. After all, those affected by the CSSTA would not be students, the majority would probably be service industry workers and members of society.

So in the beginning, we checked student IDs, but we threw out this idea after a few hours, because not even all of those who were part of the order keeping team were students. [Laughs]

The movement later expanded. But from the beginning, during the anti-media monopoly movement, the movement included these issues. However, on-site, there wasn’t the ability to manage everything and firmly control the situation, so many issues would appear.

For example, there was the issue that someone put up a rainbow flag and it was taken down. My own stance is that there was absolute nothing wrong with putting it up.

But I don’t know what happened exactly and by the time I was notified, the rainbow flag had been taken down. This incident did not need to happen.

So it’s very hard to manage the entire space in general and so these issues would occur. Under those circumstances, you could say in a positive light that the movement was very broad and there was a lot of strength behind it.

Negatively, you could say it that a lot was covered up and controlled. Many people felt hurt from the movement afterwards, and many felt that there was no way to open up the space of this movement. You can interpret it either way.

Brian Hioe:  Many people may have opposed the KMT or China, but how do you think most participants understood their participation?

Photo credit: hjw223/lickr/CC

Huang Yan-Ru:  In reality, you could find precedents for all of this. During the Citizen 1985 movement, there was the issue of many everyday people who hadn’t participated in social movements before participated in these issues. And if you had already been working on social movements before, you might not be an expert on more than seven or eight issues, but you would know the general direction.

Regular people entering the movement wouldn’t know these issues. And our education is naturally right-wing. As well as overly structure-focused. So some people would oppose on the basis of the process, regarding to controversy about whether political parties should join or not, and because some people were pulled in because of opposition to the process.

Because the thirty second incident, which was shocking for a lot of people, led to the most direct reaction. Then would you start to consider the China factor or, the larger issue, of globalization and opposition to free trade. So process was what people began with right away, with the view that if the process wasn’t right, this was wrong.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that social movement participants have any political leanings? Because social movement participants seem to be progressive on a number of issues, ranging from opposition to the death penalty to support for same-sex marriage.

Huang Yan-Ru:  Whether it is progressive or not, it’s hard to say. Because social movements have a lot of issues and are issue-based. Because of realistic considerations, many issues will have internal conflicts. Because social movements have an issue, which is that they have to find what cause they care most about. And they’ll put this cause ahead of other causes.

Unification and independence may not be what these people want to focus on. So when the issue you are working on is colonized by other issues, it returns to everyone to see how favorably they think of other issues.

For example, there’s the issue of unification versus independence within the labor movement or gender/sexuality within the labor movement, or environmental movement versus the indigenous movement. This is already a contradiction and so there will be conflict.

For people in social movements, there’s a high cost for communication. It doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily stand on your side. Because everyone will put their own issue first. So when you say people progressive, you have to look at this.

And right now, there are those opposed to pension reform. That’s also a social movement, so I don’t dare to say that all movements are progressive.

Brian Hioe:  Three years later, how do you think this movement has influenced Taiwanese politics? Many people raise the election victories of Tsai Ing-Wen or Ko Wen-Je or the appearance of the Third Force.

Huang Yan-Ru:  There’s a circumstance, which is that the demonstration of the people’s power has changed the environment. Because many people emerged from the Sunflower Movement and these people know that participating in politics, not necessarily as a political candidate, as a voter possibly. When there’s no social protest, this force will turn towards voting. And this will change the electoral system.

Before 318, we more or less knew that the KMT would lose, so I wouldn’t say that social movements have allowed the DPP to take power, I think that social movements have allowed the KMT to break apart moreso, leaving space for the DPP to expand. We probably already knew before 318 that the KMT would lose some seats, just we didn’t realize it would lose by such a large amount.

So in looking at the DPP, people felt that the DPP would probably take power. But it would divide between those who make differing political assessments afterwards, as to whether they want to work with the DPP or provide oversight over the DPP. You would consider issues regarding how advantageous they are to the DPP.

I think that the situation is that people won’t work as hard on politics and will be pulled towards issues that affect them. In the past, in Taiwan, you would see that there are often fight in the Legislative Yuan, but you wouldn’t know what was going on with these fights and what that had to do with you.

But after coming out of social movements, you would think, “What they’re fighting about is the CSSTA.” And why does the CSSTA have to be passed? What will happen to my work? Then it has to do with you. That’s what the effect was, that it led to these people’s strength being released.

Brian Hioe:  What do you think social movement participants are doing now? Some people may have entered politics, while some may have gone back to doing what they were doing before.

Photo credit: Felix the Bear/Flickr/CC

Huang Yan-Ru:  You can maybe find out through your research as to whether we’re repeating what happened during the Wild Lily movement. Because there appeared to factions after the Wild Lily movement, those who entered political parties, and those who later founded present-day NGOs.

So there was a large division at that time. Before 2016 elections, it didn’t appear that it was so different from in the past, with students or others divided between these two directions. If not remaining on the streets, they entered into a political party. And those who entered political parties may have may have more resources or political capital, or were more famous.

But during elections, it was quite interesting. Because the DPP said in the past that it had come out of social movements, but we can gradually see that the present DPP is different from in the past. There’s distance between the DPP and social movements now.

In this process, there are some progressive forces in the DPP which will become weaker and as a result, the strength of street protests may rise. It won’t be like in the past, when the DPP had an ambiguous relation with social movements. They very clearly oppose some of the missteps of the DPP. These people will be independent of political parties and will reflect the strength of street protests. I think this is more interesting.

Brian Hioe:  Do you have any views regarding how China looks at Taiwan’s present political circumstances?

Huang Yan-Ru:  I’m quite optimistic. Not that our system will be better in the future or anything like that, but because I feel that conditions of oppression will lead to the rise of the power of the people. So when I see that the situation is becoming harder, I won’t laugh at others’ misfortunes, but I preserve an optimistic stance.

Because from when I started working in social movements four years ago, everyday, we never knew how many people would show up. I remember the media would ask us how many people we expected, and I would ask Chen Wei-Ting how many people he thought, and he would reply, “How should I know?” We just didn’t know how many people would come.

But it also returns to the the spread of information is faster than ever. Political assessments have to keep pace with this. In my generation, during middle school, the Internet hadn’t been firmly established. However, in these past five or six years…when I was in college, social movement organizations were in the Wild Strawberry period. At that time, it was very difficult to establish ties. There was the Internet, but posting commentary on PTT was something out of the ordinary then.

It’s hard to imagine how we organized then now, although we thought it was quite normal then. Later on, then there Facebook and after Facebook, now there’s Line. These ways of mobilizing have had a stimulus for social movements groups. Those who are middle aged may still mobilize from organizations, with an elite leadership structure. But for those who grew up during Internet age, it may be explaining an issue clearly with images and text, and sending this out.

Only for these two to come together can there be large mobilizations. I look at this optimistically still.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that there could be another event in Taiwan such as the Sunflower Movement

Huang Yan-Ru:  I think there will be. But I don’t think the ruling party wants to create the situation for this. Before 318, we were all very depressed. We thought that nobody would come if we charged the Legislative Yuan, but that we had to do this anyway. It can’t be that nobody can do this. So we didn’t really care how many people said they were going, we thought we would just do it anyway.

But then the Sunflower Movement exploded. Nobody had expected this. We had used our experience to see something suddenly sprout. If there are conditions of oppression, then opposition will appear very quickly.

It’s like that with Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement as well. They said only to occupy Central so why did they also occupy Admiralty and Mong Kok and Causeway Bay?

I went then. I went to Mong Kok. I stayed there at MK and listened to those from Admiralty as well and found that Mong Kok was more radical. If the Executive Yuan had been occupied, it probably would have been like in Hong Kong that it was divided between two centers of power, one of which was concerned with the rules and another that was more radical. [Laughs] But it might have been larger than Hong Kong.

In reality, three Yuans were occupied that day, the Control Yuan was also occupied. People didn’t really pay attention to the Control Yuan. It’s kind of scary. [Laughs]

Photo credit: tenz1225/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  Lastly, do you believe that the Sunflower Movement could influence the international world?

Huang Yan-Ru:  I’m afraid of flattering ourselves there. Because, for example, at the time, there was first the Sunflower Movement and then the Umbrella Movement. And everyone says that the Sunflower Movement influenced the Umbrella Movement, but I think that the structure of the Umbrella Movement can’t really be compared with the Sunflower Movement. Because even later on in the movement, the Sunflower Movement was still focused on the Legislative Yuan. At that time, Lin Fei-Fan and Chen Wei-Ting had already been deified by the public.

I later went to Hong Kong. I lived there a week. And I only prepared money for the ticket, I didn’t prepare any money to live anywhere. So I spent a lot of time living on the street, almost like a homeless person, wandering around and watching and listening. I later found that Hong Kong’s situation was already something different from the Sunflower Movement.

Even before that, there was already some established techniques and organizations, but the Sunflower Movement wasn’t something we had discussed beforehand. So do you think that the Sunflower Movement is anything Hong Kong could learn from?

I would just say that our movement was a a certain way, I don’t dare say that we could influence everywhere else. It added pressure in Hong Kong, since that was after the Executive Yuan incident.

The slogan you often heard during the Sunflower Movement was, “Today’s Hong Kong, tomorrow’s Taiwan.” And Hong Kong was viewed as already doomed, with no possibility of saving. But then after the Executive Yuan incident, there was a change, which was that Taiwan felt that it could learn from what Hong Kong was doing.

That kind of label changed. But I think that was a process of adding pressure to the situation in Hong Kong, I can’t say that it was a process of learning techniques from us.