Interview: Lilly Lee

Lilly Lee is a MA student at National Cheng Chi University and the current chair of Democracy Renovation. The following interview was originally conducted on December 12, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  How did you begin to participate in social movements?

Lilly Lee:  I began to participate in social movements in a more unusual way. When I began to participate in social movements, I was in Berkeley. In 2011, Occupy Berkeley took place. I happened to be part of the Taiwanese student group at Berkeley then.

At the same time, they occupied a large building on campus, and I passed by. I wasn’t very clear what it was. I just heard that Occupy Wall Street was taking place on the East Coast, and that some left-wing students were involved in this. After I passed by, I found that there were some upperclassmen that I knew there, so I joined in. This may be what is more particular about me, that when I encountered social movements for the first time, it wasn’t from Taiwanese social movements, but from America.

Democracy Renovation logo. Photo credit: Democracy Renovation/Facebook

As for when the Sunflower Movement began, at the time, I had exchanged back to National Taiwan University (NTU). That was in my senior year. I joined the student association at NTU then. It was also because of some upperclassmen who were concerned with the issue of the CSSTA that I got involved. They were among those that broke into the Legislative Yuan on the first day. But I didn’t participate on the first day. I went over on the second day and was pulled in. I participated in the translation group, translating English, Chinese, and Korean. But I helped more out with the English group and not the Korean group, because my English translation is faster compared to Korean. I helped translate reports from foreign media.

Brian Hioe:  Why did you participate in the Sunflower Movement?

Lilly Lee:  The reason I began to participate was because, beforehand, I was concerned with economic issues. In college, I took some economics classes and my minor was in economics. At the time, I felt that the service agreements or trade deals are usually done by first signing a trade agreement, then a service agreements, and that service agreements usually are more harmful. So up until when it was going to be signed with China, my view was that this should be reversed.

But at the time, there was not enough discourse. I didn’t understand which sectors were being opened up and what the harm that the agreement would actually have would be. It was only after actions took place that I started reading about this. This led to a realization, that in looking back on 2008 to 2016, when the Ma government was in power, oftentimes social movements took action first and only later on would they look back and see what they were protesting.

One of the reasons for this is because many think of the government in rather simple terms, as a homogeneous force. The government then was the KMT in power. So young people then would think of the state apparatus in simplistic terms, with the view that the government didn’t have any good will. You could see this regarding Dapu, demonstrations regarding Taiwan Railways, or other issues. Your first view was that the government wasn’t acting on behalf of the people.

But after the DPP took power, you would later find that there’s no way to look at many structural issues in as simplistic terms anymore. So in 2014, you would find that many things had very direct responses. At that time, social movements had the characteristic of that reactions were very quick. Discourse was very undeveloped. To the extent that only after taking action would you think about why action was taken and who these people who initiated the action were.

It’s actually quite scary. You could call up a group of people or you might be a participant yourself, but you didn’t really know who the people around you were, or why anybody had come. If you didn’t know why these people were here, as to when the aims of an action were accomplished, or when to withdraw, or how this movement should end, would be very unclear. You would try to reach consensus with everyone, but people didn’t know each other. 

Brian Hioe:  You later participated with Youth Against Oppression.

Lilly Lee:  Youth Against Oppression hadn’t formed then. The reason why I joined was because of the NTU student association. But Youth Against Oppression was formed after the withdrawal.

At that time, I wasn’t a member. I was only inside the Legislative Yuan four to five days. I left afterwards, because at the time, I had exchanged back to NTU, so I had to go back to Berkeley. I was supposed to be at Berkeley already then, but I kept hearing about actions, so I kept changing my flight to delay it. I delayed it to the point that if I didn’t return, I would have to withdraw for that semester, so I had no choice but to return.

I participated at the very start of the movement.  As a result, I didn’t participate in any of the decisions made later on. I participated in the first, most intense period. Youth Against Oppression was formed after 324 and the withdrawal from the Legislative Yuan. I didn’t participate then, but after I graduated from Berkeley, I came back. At the end of 2015, I joined Youth Against Oppression.

Rally held by Democracy Renovation. Photo credit: Democracy Renovation/Facebook

Brian Hioe:  Did you disagree with the views of the core decision-making group regarding 324 or the decision to withdraw from the Executive Yuan?

Lilly Lee:  I can’t respond to that, because at the time, I wasn’t in the Legislative Yuan. I wasn’t physically there. But I know that at the time, the few people who started Youth Against Oppression, such as Aman Wu, opposed the decision to withdraw. However, I don’t know why they opposed it at that point in time.

I decided to join Youth Against Oppression because Youth Against Oppression tried to put complex information in simpler terms then. There were many designers part of the organization then, so they would send out information on certain issues in simple terms very quickly, when something happened. This allowed for complex issues to be grasped in a short period of time. At the time, I felt that I could help out with this, since I was interested in issues of international law and international relations. I felt that if I joined this group and I helped allow these complex issues to be understood, this would help everyone understand the issue.

Brian Hioe:  Did you participate in any solidarity activities when you went back to Berkeley?

Lilly Lee:  Yes. There weren’t a lot of people in the Taiwanese student group at Berkeley and there wasn’t much activity. When I went back, I organized a group of students in the Bay Area, not just at Berkeley, and wanted to organize something like Cafe Philo. At the time, students couldn’t participate very smoothly in political issues. The Taiwanese students there usually got together for social events, such as getting together to spend Christmas together or things like that.

To find a group of people interested in Taiwanese political issues who were also young people was more difficult. People felt that participating in a Taiwanese local association would even be too political. The Taiwanese local associations on the West Coast are very emphatic on Taiwanese, to the extent that if you don’t speak Taiwanese, they would be skeptical about your political views. That made it difficult for some to participate.

I organized that group of students and tried to find ways to organize as overseas students. This later failed, because overseas students don’t plan on staying there in the long-term. Their identification is, of course, Taiwanese, but they weren’t familiar with American local issues or Taiwanese local issues, and there was no way to maintain both sides. Later on, it became almost like that I was leading everyone to study in order to raise everyone’s awareness of issues. But this became very different from what I was originally hoping to do.

People were reading about international relations and international law and I was teaching them about it, such as how Dr. Chen Wen-Cheng felt that Taiwan was gradually becoming a country, and why. As a result, I participated less in social movements in Berkeley.

Brian Hioe:  To change directions, do you think that your participation in the Sunflower Movement has to do with your sense of Taiwanese identification?

Lilly Lee:  Yes. A part of it. Because the Sunflower Movement did strengthen the sense of Taiwanese identification of a generation of Taiwanese young people, that they would feel they are Taiwanese, and that’s all. Not that they are Taiwanese and also Chinese. This sense of identification gradually accumulated. But it’s actually an open question as to whether this had a direct relation with the Sunflower Movement. Because this was a product of education, as in school textbooks.

However, what is more particular is that after the Sunflower Movement, this has led Taiwanese identification to become more mainstream. People would feel that identifying one’s self as Taiwanese is a very normal thing. And the Sunflower Movement would lead people to be more concerned with collective issues, whether these things are good or bad. Such as current debate about the Labor Standards Act. I think what is most fundamental is that this has allowed people to know that politics is something that influences everyday life.

Brian Hioe:  What kind of movement do you think this was? A movement opposed to the black box? The KMT? The CSSTA? China?

Lilly Lee:  My personal view is that those who participated in the Sunflower Movement at the time were opposed to China and how Chinese influence entered Taiwan. As a result, they were opposed to the Chinese KMT, and actions taken to sell off Taiwan to China. My view, then, is that the young people that participated then put the opposing the KMT and being opposed to China together as issues. They more directly felt that the existence of the KMT was negative in this way, you could say. [Laughs]

Lilly Lee. Photo credit: Democracy Renovation/Facebook

I think it may be a simple way of thinking about the nation. At that time, the KMT was in power, and it had control of the legislature and various local governments. As a result, the opposition didn’t have strength to oppose it. It would lead to the view that the KMT is China’s representative in Taiwan. However, it’s actually unclear whether this was true in reality. But at the time, it was thought to be this way, and it would be thought of there being the need to oppose the KMT in Taiwan because it was China’s representative in Taiwan and so both needed to be opposed.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that there is any political orientation to Taiwanese social movements? Many people say that they are more left-leaning and they may be progressive on a number of issues ranging from gay marriage to opposition to the death penalty. These issues oftentimes are not directly related.

Lilly Lee:  It’s progressive values. I think that the issues social movement participants are concerned with are quite wide-ranging. Society has many issues, whether environmental, political, gender/sexuality, or etc. These are social issues. 

But this is one of the difficulties we encounter. Democracy Renovation is a social movement organization, and it’s also a registered organization with the Ministry of the Interior. This leads to the issue of that, do we need to focus on every issue? Such as transitional justice regarding the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial. The Labor Standards Act also strongly influences the people, so we also need to focus on this. As for environment or development, such as with the Asia Cement mine, this is important, too, so we also need to focus on this.

Yet then, what are the core values and aims of this organization? If we focus on every issue, we may become spread too thin. As a result, before 2016, the organization spent a lot of time and energy pursuing these different issues. When an issue broke out, we would spend a great deal of time and energy working on this. But a problem emerged during this year is that we ended up being spread very thin and everyone was exhausted. Why would we be chasing after all these issues?  For example, regarding the Labor Standards Act, we might have to grasp everything about the Labor Standards Act within a week and all the discourse about it, and have to produce a response regarding it and send this to our designers. And then designers would have to spend three days without sleeping to produce graphics about this. 

We discovered that this way of conducting things is very unhealthy, because everyone would be very tired. We would also find that what our members were concerned with, weren’t necessarily what everyone was discussing at the time. So we gradually would have to split ourselves off. Obviously, we’re very concerned with these issues, but what are our aims that we eventually hope to accomplish? We have to think this through clearly and only then can we concern ourselves with other issues.

For Democracy Renovation, we divides our work into two aspects. One aspect is that, in years in which there are no elections, we hope to work on normalizing the country. This is a very vague phrase, but we want to start from where we experience discrepancies in our daily lives due to Taiwan’s peculiar status. For us, this is to allow us to be more visible to the international world. Although this sounds quite distant, I think that through having speeches every month, or writing articles every month, or holding exchanges between organizations, is a very good way to do this. So as long as we are sure what our core values and aims are, then can we concern ourselves with progressive values. That’s the proper way to form an organization.

Brian Hioe:  What are the effects that you think this movement has had, three years later? Regarding Taiwanese identification? Changes to Taiwanese politics? Many people discuss this in terms of Tsai Ing-Wen’s election victory or Ko Wen-Je’s election victory, or people entering into the electoral system.

Photo credit: Democracy Renovation/Facebook

Lilly Lee:  What is clearest is the formation of a political party. That the New Power Party has obtained some seats in legislature. So this has led to large changes in Taiwanese politics.

One of your questions that you sent me is how Taiwanese social movements can influence international social movements. I want to make such a comparison. The Sunflower Movement has led to large changes in Taiwanese politics. But in the international world, it hasn’t. There has been very few changes.

Taiwan is not a country widely reported on in international media. Taiwanese people have a myth about the American government, that America doesn’t hope for Taiwan to become a troublemaker. Such as during the Chen presidency. But I don’t feel that this is so. I feel that the American government hopes for Taiwan to participate in international issues. Such as with regards to the WHA and WHO or the UN General Assembly.

They hope that Taiwan can more proactively work on different issues. Such as the Global Cooperation and Training Framework signed with the American Institute in Taiwan. Because Taiwan is a very advanced country in the medical industry. I studied biochemistry in my undergraduate, so I know about this. Taiwan is very successful in terms of vaccinations. America hoped to sign this agreement regarding cooperation in hopes that Taiwan could become a center for medical training, such as with regards to the Philippines, Myanmar, or other countries in which medical technology is not as developed, that people from these countries can come to Taiwan for training. That they could bring back information on how to combat dengue fever or other diseases to their home countries. That Taiwan can serve as a country to help other countries in Asia.

As a result, I feel that Taiwan is very important country, and that we should take advantage of this, to speak out regarding various international issues. This is also why Democracy Renovation hopes to use civic exchanges to break through the deadlock of official relations, such as visits by high-level officials. I think that this is what is more important now, regarding domestic influence from the Sunflower Movement, as well as international influence from the Sunflower Movement.

Brian Hioe:  What do you think that participants in social movements are doing now? Such as what members of Democracy Renovation are doing now.

Lilly Lee:  Like I mentioned earlier, after the DPP took power, many people entered into the government system. I think that this is necessary and that this is also intelligent.  This period of time is different from the Chen administration, because the DPP didn’t control the Legislative Yuan then. During this period of time, what is needed is that we need our own people, who are closer to independence, to enter politics.

Many organizations formed at that point in time, such as the Black Island Youth Front, have dissolved, because their members entered the system. A number of people from Taiwan March have also entered into the New Power Party. I believe that this is necessary and a good thing. However, I also can feel the conflicted feelings of those who are still outside of the system. Because they are unsure of what to do next. And they don’t what they are opposing now is the DPP, the government as a whole, or specific policies. People that have become legislative assistants feel very conflicted and confused.

Photo credit: Democracy Renovation

Democracy Renovation also encountered many of the same issues.  Democracy Renovation has changed members one or two times. Those who formed Youth Against Oppression originally have mostly become legislative assistants now. Those who are members of Democracy Renovation now are usually younger. Most are college student or graduate students.

Democracy Renovation has about thirty members in its activities now and it has ten or so cadres. These cadres are usually students from National Cheng Chi University, National Taiwan University, Soochow University.  The reason why we would pull in these students is because we organized some screenings, hoping that people interested in such issues would attend.

We would discover that many of those who participated in the Sunflower Movement have now entered society. We have a member, Chen Jiaqing, who is now a lawyer. He was originally part of the NTU student association, but now he’s a lawyer. He doesn’t have as much time to participate in organizational activities, not because he is unwilling to, but because of work. So this has become support in the form of financial support. When we produce some products, he might buy them, for example. From 2014 up to now, almost 2018, a wave of students has entered the workforce. But those who have entered the workforce will find other means to support social movements. This may not be direct participation, but economic and financial support.

Brian Hioe:  Do you have any views regarding how China may look at the current political circumstance in Taiwan?

Lilly Lee:  Last week, I attended an international relations class at school, discussing when people think China would attack Taiwan. We started talking about Ian Easton’s book. Because he’s part of Project 2049 and he discussed that, while China may have deep knowledge of Taiwan, what kind of actions it would realistically take against Taiwan.

I believe to begin with that we need to think of China as another country and, moreover, as an enemy country, which wants to annex Taiwan. The Lee Ming-Che incident is another example. Through this, you discover that China is a country without human rights, but everyone knows this already. What we need to reflect on is which path that Taiwan needs to walk on.

Democracy Renovation works together with the Taiwan Association of University Professors and one of these professors is Song Cheng. He’s a scholar of international law. He was the representative of the Taiwanese government in negotiations with the Philippines regarding fishing. After coming back from these negotiations, he felt that Taiwan is always restricted in the international world. Of course, a great deal of fault regarding that lies with China, but Taiwan itself has failed to take advantage of many opportunities.

The Lee Ming-Che incident is a good example of that. The Lee Ming-Che incident is a case in which a citizen has been kidnapped, but the nation has not reacted very strongly against this. If this was out of fear that armed conflict would break out across the Taiwan Straits, those circumstances might be understandable, but Taiwan needs to condemn this, as well as to use this incident to make it clear that Taiwanese people are not subject to Chinese rule.

After making this clear, international law scholars would back you up and fill in the blanks in your discourse. To tell you how to fight this out. And in this way, you can make international society aware of this incident. It’s like with the WHA. From 2007 up to last year, the WHA has invited us, but after the change in administrations, they did not invite us.

Taiwanese citizens would feel that this is a punishment from China for voting the DPP into power, but this is a very strange view. Is it a good thing to participate in the WHA as Chinese Taipei during that period of time? Because if you participate in international organizations as Chinese Taipei, this convention would become a negative precedent in international law. It could be that this actually provides an opportunity for Taiwan to participate in international organizations directly as Taiwan. I believe that it is important to test these waters.

Photo credit: Democracy Renovation/Facebook

Brian Hioe:  Lastly, do you think that there could be another social movement in Taiwan like the Sunflower Movement?

Lilly Lee:  I think it would be very difficult. Because the DPP has taken power and now has control of the state apparatus, including the legislature. And it may be able to improve, although it may need more time. So I feel that for something like the Sunflower Movement, in which anger built up over so many years, this would be very difficult. We may need to use the example of the Wild Lily Movement to project the future.

But I don’t look forward to future movements breaking out. Not in the slightest. Because for social movements to break out means that the government has broken down. If the government has broken down, this isn’t a good thing for the nation. To enact change from within the system is always faster than enacting change from outside of the system and it has clearer aims.

If most people are now working in government, for legislative assistants to help legislators to draft legislation may seem like a small thing, but this is a direct way of influencing the way the country carries out its affairs. This is better than advocating from the outside or holding large-scale protests. This is more effective.

However, I’m not saying that social movements shouldn’t take place either. Because social movements are a way to express the will of the people. Yet I don’t think it will be on the scale of the Sunflower Movement. I think it will be similar to protests regarding the Labor Standards Law. This is a means of protest as well, but I hope that social movements on the scale of the Sunflower Movement do not take place.

Brian Hioe:  Is there anything you would like to say in closing?

Lilly Lee:  I would like to say that I feel that with the DPP taking power, many things are in the process of change. Such as with regards to same-sex marriage, or rectifying the name of the nation. I think this is gradually change. From the perspective of a social movement organization, what needs to be thought about is how to allow this process to speed up.

What every social movement organization is concerned with may be different. For example, Citizens of the Earth is concerned with environmentalism. The Economic Democracy Union may be concerned with the economy.

What Democracy Renovation is concerned with is Taiwan’s place in the international community. Democracy Renovation hopes to make clear what international law and international relations are. Because people may think about international law from the standpoint of international relations or vice-versa. And there are actually very few exchanges between both sides. We want to bring both sides closer together.

I feel that under conditions of the DPP taking power, social movement organizations have to think about what the meaning of their existence is, what their aims are, what they hope to achieve in the future, and how they want to achieve this. I think that only through this can Taiwan become a normalized nation, in terms of foreign affairs, national identification, and other aspects.