Interview: Jiho Chang

Jiho Chang is currently bidding for a DPP nomination for city councillor election in Keelung, formerly having worked in the Presidential Office, and been a writer for Thinking Taiwan. The following interview was conducted on October 23rd, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  The first question I wanted to ask is, how did you begin to participate in social movement activism? What were the causes you participated in and why did you participate?

Jiho Chang:  It started when I was fifteen, I guess? I was either fourteen or fifteen or somewhere in between. It was in 1995. There was a missile crisis between Taiwan and China. That was sort of my first time taking to the streets, but I was not even in Taiwan. I was in Vancouver at the time and there was a rally, there was a protest in front of the Chinese consulate.

It was nice. Because if you were in Taiwan, you wouldn’t have a Chinese consulate to protest to, right? But we were in Vancouver. That was the first time. It sort of triggered my interest in the whole China problem.

After that, I began reading to try to know more about the source of the problem. Then in university, I was exposed to this really egalitarian radical lecturer, who was an anarchist. So he sort of walked us through the whole of progressive thoughts.

Film credit: Jiho Chang/YouTube

I began to slowly participate in the anti-war rallies. It was 2002 or 2003 when the War on Afghanistan started. So there was that. And also the tuition fee issues on campus. They were privatizing a lot of the university subsidies. Because we have public universities. Privatizing the boards of schools was an issue.

After I graduated, I came back to Taiwan with a purpose. Or I gave myself a mission that I wanted to do more about. But back in Taiwan, you have start from scratch again. There was nothing in Taiwan like this. Or at least I couldn’t find comrades at the time, who were both very pro-independence but also progressive.

But the pro-independence camp, particularly on campus, it was almost absent. Nobody talked about it anymore. It was 2004 when President Chen was still in power. People thought that the issue had been settled. You didn’t talk about it anymore. In reality, it was far from being settled.

So we started these study groups and also worked on some campus issues. But the people who were working on the student government. I had never found it interesting. Either back in Canada or in Taiwan. It was just the most boring part for me. But it was nice to have a small study group that was gradually growing.

By 2008, we had our first shot at the bigger form of protest. Which is to say, the Wild Strawberry Movement. But that was my first time really taking a more central role in…screwing things up. [Laughs] Before that, it was other people’s fault. But in 2008, I had to take some responsibility for the screwing up.

That started a whole series of other movements that I either played a role in or simply participated in. That was also when social media started to boom. And you can sense that if you’re interested in one issue, you’re very likely to be involved in another. Because it’s the same group of people. It grows, of course. But the core activists are still the same group of people.

So how did I first become involved in activism? I can say 1995. I can also say around 2008.

Brian Hioe:  What were you doing at the time of the Sunflower Movement?

Jiho Chang:  I was supposed to be enrolled in a Ph. D program at the time. I was in my second year Ph. D at National Cheng Chi University. But I sort of put it on hold the half year before the Sunflower Movement because I had a vision come to me. [Laughs] No, I’m just kidding. But I just grew alienated from the whole Ph. D thing.

So I started my own herbal tea business. We weren’t making money or anything, but just barely breaking even. But I was doing okay, because I was writing constantly on my Facebook and other forms of media. Thinking Taiwan in particular. That little fame helped with my business a little bit. That was then.

During the Sunflowers, I was sort of like a veteran. Someone who has some years of experience in screwing things up and could give advice. I thought maybe I should tell them what I know and what I think. Because I thought at the time, the core members of the Sunflower Movement were just so young, and have very little experience.

Photo credit: 張之豪/Facebook

I always found them making really bad political judgments. I thought it was because they were just not that political. They were too progressive and they didn’t see the bigger picture regarding the politicians. Or the schemes behind certain things. And I thought, I could provide some perspectives regarding that.

It later turned out that they had some older people who offered their perspectives. But, again, progressivism has melted some part of their brains for them to make some really stupid decisions. But I tried to make suggestions. I tried to support them whenever I could.

I was there the whole time, not inside the parliament. I hated the whole chamber thing. It was hot, there was no air conditioning, and it was just full of fanboys and posers. For those of us who had had several years of experience in activism and those of us who actually know each other, we have this little network, right? I think most of us didn’t want to even be in the chamber. But we also sort of lost opportunities because of that.

So what was I doing? I was supporting and helping with a bit of everything. I translated some things and I think I wrote this speech for Wei Yang when he was visiting the US at the time. This and that. Everything I could. I tried to convince Chen Wei-Ting and Lin Fei-Fan to take our side several times. But we failed. Because Lin Fei-Fan was really fearful of what Huang Kuo-Chang thinks. I was part of the Department of Social Sciences group.

Brian Hioe:  I was part of the charge. I was one of the people that charged on 323.

Jiho Chang:  You were? So you know. By the way, I never agreed to it. I never liked that idea. I thought it was a stupid idea. But, in any case, of course, from hindsight, it was probably a good decision, You sort of enlarged the scale of the whole movement and you gave some energy to the movement.

It was almost dead by the 23rd. They were doing nothing. They were sitting ducks within the parliament. And that was deliberate. It’s not that they didn’t have options. It was a deliberate decision by Huang Kuo-Chang and all the other legislators that you mentioned you just interviewed. So I was very frustrated with that, but then I still thought I shouldn’t just leave, I should stay and see what I could do. Of course, it turned out that I couldn’t do much. The people really loved what they did with the movement. To the movement.

I remember that night on the 30th, when 500,000 people showed up. I felt nothing. I felt nothing at all. I didn’t know why they were rooting for this cause that doesn’t seem to go anywhere. There’s nothing to this cause. I don’t know why we made these weird demands that led the movement to nowhere.

There were no political objectives. There was nothing to be achieved or done. So you are wasting this huge support from Taiwanese society, I thought. For so long there hadn’t been this. It had never been seen before. It was unprecedented and you are just waiting it on this stupid clause? People are not here because of that. People are frustrated over the cross-strait issues that had been standing still for the longest time. They may not be conscious of it. They may not be aware of that. But is that what motivated people?

Brian Hioe:  Along those lines, how would you describe that movement? The most amount of people may have opposed the black box and the least amount of people may have opposed free trade and somewhere in between was opposition to the KMT and China.

Jiho Chang:  I think that’s the undercurrent. Of course, people are not going to admit that they were taking to the streets because they hate China. People don’t hate China, but they have a fear of China. Back in 2008, that was the motivation for the Wild Strawberries. For the people supporting the movement. Not the activists. Of course, we know what we’re doing.

But the people supporting the movement were doing that out of that fear of China. It’s immanent. It’s always there. Sometimes you don’t think about it. But when you do, you can’t sleep. I don’t mean that literally, but you know what I mean, right?

It’s in the back of your head. It’s the undercurrent. It’s always been the undercurrent, I think. Even for the KMT supporters, they share that fear. They share that suspicion of China. It’s just that a large portion of the KMT supporters believe that you can outsmart China with maneuvers. With little schemes. Like the 1992 Consensus. Or this or that. We can hold them off for another ten years or so and while we are at it, we can make something for our own.

Photo credit: Kent Chuang/Flickr/CC

And I think that’s the sort of majority of the KMT supporters. That’s why if the situation is right, if the conditions are right, they will be on our side as well. And I think that’s what the Sunflowers did. For that brief moment. You also got those KMT supporters rooting for Taiwan. Maybe just for this issue, out of that fear, out of that undercurrent. In the end, democratic process is important, but that’s not why people took to the streets. That’s not. But I also think that’s the price you pay, when you have that critical mass. It’s only an hour of walking It’s like a family trip. There’s nothing to be afraid of, there’s no blood to be shed. You know there is not enough police to do anything about it. You know the military is not going to do anything about it. So there are no consequences.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think Taiwanese identity has to do with it? With regards to how people participated in the movement or how you yourself participated?

Jiho Chang:  Identity? Yeah!

Brian Hioe:  How would you say so?

Jiho Chang:  You mean for me?

Brian Hioe:  Both yourself and what you observe.

Jiho Chang:  I have been an independence activist or thinker for most of my adult life, right? Including the Smallville years. [Laughs] It’s directly a causal relation. So for me, the issue of identity has always been a drive for many of my political participation. I wouldn’t say all, but many. I know after we have established our own country as a member of the United Nations or whatever new organizations that we’re going to have, I know after that we still have a lot to do.

Even so, I would say that Taiwanese identity is a strong motivation for me. I would say that I would be more sympathetic to progressivism if Taiwan were already established. But because Taiwan is not already not established, not only am I sympathetic, I also need to be active.

Brian Hioe:  Along those lines, why do you think that social movements in Taiwan oftentimes claims that they are left-leaning? It’s interesting that people claim to be progressive on a number of issues, such as support for gay marriage or opposition to the death penalty or indigenous issues or all that other stuff. Where do you think that comes from?

Jiho Chang:  I’m going to give you an answer that probably most of your interviewees aren’t going to agree on. I think it has to do in a way with a sort of vanguard effect. In 2008, the DPP, the only opposition party, was at the lowest of the low. They were weak. They were bankrupt, in terms of ideology. In a way, right? Not totally bankrupt, but with a huge debt. So they were in bad shape. And the DPP and the progressives couldn’t be further away from each other at the time.

But then the progressives are the only ones who have legitimacy in terms of protesting the KMT. They could claim that they don’t lean on particular independence ideologies. They are just there for this women’s rights issue, or this environmental issue. We all know it’s not just that.

So you have this sort of left-leaning pro-independence or pro-Taiwan activism that slowly took the center stage. Post-2008. When you have issues that trigger more participation, they have to follow whoever was already there. It’s a sort of path dependence effect.

So the activists sort of gained or took or hijacked the propaganda machine of the movement. They spread that to the crowd. I’m pretty sure that the crowd or society was not that progressive nine years ago.

But the crowd or the society has slowly accepted the values of the activists. Because they probably agree with 80% of everything they say, right? “Oh, we’ve got to protect the environment. We’ve got to be nice to the animals. Maybe we should also nice to gays.” I think it’s something like that.

Nine years is quite a fast, it’s quite a short time. So I’m also sure there’s an age difference, of course. You have this growing number of young people. And let’s face it. It’s objective fact that the majority of the young voters are the children of the baby boomers. They took up the most number of people post-war, right? And then they gave birth to us—the twenty-somethings, the thirty-somethings.

The Strawberries or whatever you call it, it’s this generation of people that take up the vast majority of the young people population. Millennials don’t count. There are just too few of them. But of course, we’re talking us and the younger generation, and so we have more sources of information and we cling more to the progressive side on this couple of issues. From gay marriage…capital punishment, I don’t know. Maybe not. But gay marriage very much so. That makes more sense than, “Oh, we’re the younger generation, we’re more progressive.” [Laughs]

Brian Hioe:  Three years later, how do you feel about the movement? First you went into the Tsai administration and now you’re running for office.

Jiho Chang:  Well, I think you can tell. I’m full of resentment! I’m bitter! [Laughs] No, I was very resentful at first. Like right after the movement ended in April or in May. I was furious, I was really angry at what they did to the movement.

Because to me, the movement isn’t just the Sunflower Movement, it’s everything that happened after 2008. It’s like we have been building this up. This is our Avengers: Infinity Wars! [Laughs] You had your highs and lows, you had your Thor 2, right? But we have been making this universe for the longest time, and you had this villain, and you finally had your final battle.

Photo credit: Abby Chen/Flickr/CC

So I was furious at how they screwed things up. And this time, I’m not to blame. But nobody is blaming them. Because I didn’t like how it turned out. So if you were to ask me how I would describe the success of the movement, I wouldn’t say it’s successful.

That was then. That was in May 2014. By August, or right after that, I thought, “Okay, I should get organized. I should get organized back home.” I had been writing the stories of Keelung since 2013. Even before I started the whole tea business. I did that as preparation to get into the community. To get to know the local issues and assorted issues. And we actually had a successful campaign against the tearing down of a historic warehouse by the port.

So I just sort of continued that but it had also expanded thanks to the Sunflower Movement. Because of the Sunflower Movement, you had all these young people that I didn’t know, who are also like me. Who reside in Keelung but have to go to Taipei for anything.

To save our country, we must leave our city. So who is going to save our city? Nobody? Because nobody comes here. You came here, like twice before. Got off at the wrong stop, right? Because you don’t live here, you don’t have to know the details of the city. You don’t.

But we should. Because if we don’t, nobody will. If we don’t save it, nobody will. Nobody’s going to. That’s the whole logic behind “Your own country, you have to save it yourself.” It’s the same thing. And so I got to know a lot of young people who are also sort of locally organized for the Sunflower cause.

So we organized ourselves and we started to do a lot of community work and political participation and whatnot. To put our money where our mouth is. I’m pretty sure when the so-called leaders of the Sunflower Movement came out of the parliament and said, “Let’s go back to the local and plant the seeds, when they said it, they didn’t mean it.

Logically, we should do that. We were supposed to do that a long time ago. We were all caught up in the movement and the excitement of downtown Taipei for too long, that we forgot all these legislators who screwed us up are also from every different municipality and constituency.

If we can’t change the local constituency, we will never change how they behave. We shouldn’t trust in how brilliant they are. We should trust how much the people can keep them in check. If the people can’t do that, you have to change the people. To change the people, first you can’t be condescending. You can’t be patronizing. You’ve got to be the people. And you’ve got to know what the people want and why the people allow their legislators to do such things.

Maybe there are reasons behind that. Maybe there are other things which force them to do that. So you’ve got to change the conditions, the environment, and whatnot. It’s hard work. It takes a long time. You’ve got to start now.

That’s what I did. Back in 2014, about after two months, I stopped being resentful and started my organizing. So I did and we’re three years in. We’re still fighting. Although we are in our twenties and thirties. Different people have different life choices and career paths. It’s not that we can keep everyone who started in the same organizations or doing the same things. But we do what we can.

So how would I feel about the movement now? To sum it up, in three years, I grew more positive on the movement, because I was in the middle of the ordeal, I was angry, I was frustrated, I was feeling all this resentment. I could see a lot of the downsides of the organizations and the leadership problems of the movement. But it was just me.

For the other people, for the other Keelung youth that I’ve organized, just a couple months later, they didn’t see it. They were proud to take part in this movement. It was the first time they ever did anything so political in their lives. And they could never go back. In a way, I started to see the movement from a distance. Metaphorically and also chronologically. So yes, I think it’s actually a positive thing for Taiwan as a whole. A whole generation—maybe not the whole generation, but a little more than before—has been enlightened. Either by themselves or whatever is happening. There’s so much happening.

It’s not just Chen Wei-Ting gave a speech or something. It’s not a rock concert. It’s a lot of comic, drawings, and slogans, and videos, and writings, reporting. It’s a lot of things that were happening. Not everyone was getting all this information. But they were getting different sources and different creative works from different people with different levels of understanding of the issues. But you sort of become more aware than before.

Brian Hioe:  So how do you think China looks at the political situation in Taiwan three years after the Sunflower Movement?

Jiho Chang:  I think China still can’t comprehend what was going on with the Sunflowers. No. Sometimes when I read Taiwan research from Xiamen University or Fudan University, they’re good. They’re good at what they do. They actually know a lot more than I do sometimes. Sometimes they get things really dead off. But sometimes they just hit the spot.

There’s some very brilliant Taiwan experts in China. And I’m pretty sure the State Department, the Politburo, they all got the memos, they all got this really spot-on research on Taiwan. So I’m pretty sure they know what’s going on. Or they’re supposed to know what’s going on.

Photo credit: 張之豪/Facebook

But having worked for the Presidential Office for a year, and before that I was working in the DPP campaign headquarter for a year. I can tell you: I think, even if they got the memo, they didn’t have time to read it. In that case, I wouldn’t say they don’t have Taiwan experts that don’t know what’s going on. But I would say not a lot of them actually get read or listened to. Even if they do, they probably don’t know what to do with it.

Like sometimes you have a problem that’s too complicated to dissect or to offer an immediate solution. Especially a policy solution. You just put it aside first.

It’s not like it’s immediate or anything. In four years or in eight years or in sixteen years, they are not going to see a Sunflower becoming a president or even the premier or even a mayor. These people are not going to change the political landscape of Taiwan anytime soon. Or not just the political landscape but more like the overarching policy directions. They are not going to be in that position just yet.

So they probably are not worried too much regarding the turn of events that’s happening within the Sunflowers. One thing is that. The other is that they probably also have run out of policy tools to deal with this.

What are they going to do? The Sunflowers are now here and what are they going to do? Buying us off again? Yes, they are still doing that, they have been doing that for the past two decades and it works on certain people. Of course, it’s always worked, which is why they always have this portion of people that supports them. It’s just that little portion of people. The whole Chinese nationalist propaganda sentiment only works on some people.

But I would also say that’s because it’s been executed poorly. I believe that I read some article in the New York Times or something that said, “Why China can never be cool?” or something. I think that’s the problem. It’s not cool yet. They’re trying, very hard. They’ve been trying for twenty years or thirty years. I think if they went back to the old Maoist aesthetics, that could be cool.

Brian Hioe:  That could be hipster. [Laughs]

Jiho Chang:  Yeah! That could be super-hipster. But not the direction they’re taking right now. And Xi Jinping. His cheeks are too fat to be a cool-looking logo.

Brian Hioe:  He can’t be Mao or Che Guevara.

Jiho Chang:  And he’s not in that era of revolution or revolutionaries. So it’s almost impossible for him to be cool in that sense. So yeah. That’s my take.

Brian Hioe:  Last two questions. Do you think that there could be another movement like the Sunflower Movement in the future?

Jiho Chang:  No.

Brian Hioe:  Why?

Jiho Chang:  Down the line, like how long down the line? In two decades? Yes. In a decade? No. We’ve run out of gas.

Brian Hioe:  Lastly, do you think the Sunflower Movement can affect international social movements or the international worlds?

Jiho Chang:  No.

Brian Hioe:  How so? Like some people discuss Hong Kong when I ask that.

Jiho Chang:  Let me go back to the first question. Do I think there could be another social movement? No, we’ve run out of the energy and a lot of us are doing this. [Points to election vest] Right? I think it’s a good thing that we’re doing this, because you can’t place your future on movements.

Movements are chaotic, they’re not organized, you don’t have a good support system, you can’t have continuity. These are all things that you need for Taiwan to be a country. Or to build a progressive foundation. Sweden didn’t become Sweden with just movements, right? So at some point you have to put things in policy, you have to get organized. You can’t be wearing your Che Guevara t-shirt at 40. Unless you live in New York and teach at Columbia, right?

Brian Hioe:  Or there’s Long Hair in Hong Kong.

Jiho Chang:  Yeah. But he’s the only guy. And it’s probably because he’s in Hong Kong. You’re allowed to have one Long Hair in a population of 200,000. You can’t have all these Long Hairs doing nothing but complaining. Or just posing. Posing is part of life. Everyone goes through it. I had my Che Guevara t-shirt, I’m not ashamed of it. I don’t wear it anymore. But I know what it felt like.

But you’ve got to grow up. I think twenty years is about time for everyone to grow up. For the new generation to feel the need for another change. So I think a lot of us—growing up is difficult. You’ve got all these pains, right? It’s easy to just sit around and talk all you want. The difficult part is to take action. And I think that’s what everyone is trying to learn. So that’s the first question.

The effect on international social movements? No, because Taiwan is too isolated. Even if we want to be a good example for other people, they don’t know how to begin. Unless you mean the international, like other other Asian, really Confucian and “Chinese” societies.

Brian Hioe:  Or just whatever.

Photo credit: 張之豪/Facebook

Jiho Chang:  If that’s the case, perhaps. Maybe. I think about two years back, I gave some interviews on what I think about the Taiwan and Hong Kong movement interactions.

Yes, there are interactions. We had shared influences. They took our slogans, we took their concept, or whatever. But that’s as far as it went. And Taiwan is just too narcissistic in a sense. I don’t know if they noticed or not how narcissistic we are. But we are.

For example, in order for you to have a healthy relationship between the two movements, the Umbrella and the Sunflowers, we have learn from each other and we have respect each other. In order for that to happen, you have to respect them and learn from them. And be humble in front of them.

But I find most of the activists in Taiwan—we’re not humble when we see them. We’re not at all. To take a very easy example, how many of us have been learning Cantonese? That’s the first thing.

It’s a local movement. There is a Hong Kong consciousness going on, a Hong Kong local revival of the Hong Kong memory, and language—linguistic consciousness, linguistic identity, that’s a core part of the new Hong Kong consciousness right now.

And yet when we go visit them or when they come visit us, what language are we speaking? Mandarin mostly. Are the activists on our side are just not aware of it or something? All these people, the names that you have just given me of the people that you have interviewed—I don’t see them speaking Cantonese at all. Or trying. They’re not even trying—we’re not even trying. The Taiwanese activists, we’re not even trying.

Sure, we can read the transcripts, but we’re not looking at their speeches and feeling touched or feeling it. They’re doing that to us, but we’re not doing that to them. So it’s bound to end. It’s not a healthy relationship, right? At some point, one day, they are going to say, “I think these Taiwanese are just full of themselves. Yeah, okay, so we want to learn from them, but I don’t think they have anything to learn from us, but they never asked us the question we think is important.”

I think that’s why our relationship with Hong Kong, especially the movement—there’s a limit to it. And for the other part, for the other movements, the Catalonian or other independence movements movements in general. We want people to know us, but we’re not trying very hard to know them. It’s the same problem. It’s not reciprocal. It’s a one-way learning curve. So even if they want to have anything to learn from us, it’s limited.