Interview: Lee Tzu-Tung

Lee Tzu-Tung is a artist and MFA graduate from School of the Art Institute of Chicago and is a member of New Bloom. The following interview was conducted on September 15th, 2017.


Brian Hioe:  So the first question I wanted to ask was how did you begin participating in social movements? What kind of topics did you participate in?

Lee Tzu-Tung:  The first social movement I participated in was the first time there was a demonstration against Nuclear Reactor No. 4. After that was the Shilin Wang family. So very quickly, it was one movement after another. And I also began participating in the anti-media monopoly movement and so forth. Why would I begin to participate…? The professor of my art class Luo Lizhen (駱麗真) took us to the scene of demonstration against Nuclear Reactor No.4 . She was the executive officer of the Association of the Visual Arts in Taiwan (台灣視覺藝術協會). And they openly opposed nuclear energy. I began participating from when I was a sophomore.

What was I doing during the Sunflower Movement? I had a lot of friends in the Sociology Department. I went with Facebook trends and saw that they were meeting by the by the Sociology Department and Law Department and preparing to charge. 24 hours earlier, there was a feed, so I knew that they were planning on charging.

At that time, I charged in the beginning, but I was fairly new to social movements then. I  wasn’t sure what is going on since my friends who charged in had less relation to do with the decision making group. The people in the sociology department later did not part of the decision making group. They left quite early. They went in and had some disagreements, so they left, and I left with them.

Brian Hioe:  I see. I didn’t actually know you were in Taiwan then. What kind of activities did you participate in during the Sunflower Movement? Apart from the first day.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  The first 24 hours, I was in the Legislative Yuan, with the people who charged in from the backdoor. After I charged in, I was afraid, because I hadn’t had any experience clashing with so much police in my previous experience in demonstrations.

Photo credit: Toomore Chiang/Flickr/CC

And during the Shilin Wang family incident, I was with a group of artists.

The protest for Shilin Wang family was quite intense, even the artists’ performance art intensified the atmosphere, just that I was with a group of artist, so I couldn’t really learn the legal and social background thoroughly in the Shilin Wang case.

On March 18th, I left pretty quickly. After I left, I pretty quickly saw news updates posted by my friends. Every night, I would go to the Legislative Yuan, and sleep nearby, I also participated in the Untouchables’ Liberation Area and listened to the speeches on-site. I had just finished applying for my MFA then, I didn’t have any classes, and I just stayed around there.

I was quite naive then. At that time, I was pulled along with the mood. Normally, in the cities, one feels quite far from one’s neighbors. But once everyone is on the street, one discovers that we have similar views on Taiwan and want to protect our sense of home. The street comes to feel like home. I felt a strong sense of belonging and stayed outside. And, of course, at the time, I subscribed to news updates. News updates came quite quickly then. I was quite close to the people making decisions on the inside I felt, or people inside. So I was also constantly sending messages.

Brian Hioe:  Did you sometimes disagree with the decisions made by the core leadership of the Sunflower Movement? Such as regarding 324 or the decision to withdraw from the Legislative Yuan.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  I think this has to do with the passage of time. At the time, I didn’t think I disagreed. But on 324, I did. On 324, I was at the Executive Yuan. Because the situation became very tense, I gathered a study group consisting lots of NTU students during the time, some said that 324 was a trap, and that the police didn’t guard the Executive Yuan and guarded everywhere else, so that people would go in.

After going in, I discovered that there were a lot of people there and that there were ladders to climb into the Executive Yuan. And I saw Wang Yikai, who I became acquaintances with after the movement but I remembered that they were arguing about whether to enter or whether not to enter. It was more chaotic.

Brian Hioe:  I see. Did you have any views regarding the police’s use of force?

Lee Tzu-Tung:  Now I wouldn’t think too much about it, but at the time, I would think that it’s a big deal. I think the sensation of it affected very deeply how I remember the incident. Such as the sensation of being dragged, of being hit by water cannons, even if afterwards I felt that it wasn’t such a big deal, that a lot of activism is like that. It was the first time then that I felt like crying and was like, “How could it be this way?” And “How could my nation (國家) betray me this way?”

Brian Hioe:  Did you have any views on the decision to withdraw? Of course, a lot of people were not happy, because they felt the demands of the movement hadn’t been completed.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  That’s quite hard to respond to. [Laughs] But I also got to know people afterwards and I’ve interviewed people including those making the decisions, so afterwards, there were different views regarding whether we managed to accomplish our goals. That day, I remember that I was very panicked, not knowing whether this decision was right, and feeling that if we hadn’t accomplished a set goal, what then in the future?

I remember it a bit less clearly, but I remember that the cross-straits oversight bill hadn’t been passed then. I remember that for the core participants, the CSSTA may not have been the central issue, it was a way to oppose China, and raise Taiwanese identity. So it was that if everyone withdrew, this was the circumstance. I felt conflicted, but I wasn’t especially upset that nothing concrete had been accomplished.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that your participation in the Sunflower Movement has to do with your sense of Taiwanese identity? Or with regard to Taiwanese social movements more broadly.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  I think it is very closely related. Because it also led to reflection by myself in my art on colonialism. In the past, I studied abroad in France, and at the same time, I was applying to American schools. And then this took place.

In this process, I looked at the works of art of those who applied to France to study abroad and I noticed, “Strange, they seem to prefer very Chinese works of art,” and Chinese students would talk about how their country was undemocratic and there are a lot of labor issues. And these are issues that westerners like very much.

But what are Taiwanese issues? In the past, I was one of those people who viewed Taiwan as the inheritor of China, before the Sunflower Movement. Such as that Taiwan used traditional Chinese characters, and that Taiwan had the national treasures from China. Consequently, I thought Taiwan was the proper inheritor of Chinese tradition. And so in this way, we are different from China.

In the process of the Sunflower Movement, I think my sense of Taiwanese identity strengthened. Because so many people stood out because of their sense of nationality, to protect their sense of identity, and oppose the Other, with a strong sense of an enemy having appeared. It also encouraged me to learn more about the history: Who writes the history? Who owns the power to write it?  And who brainwashed us with a (false) version of history? The encounters with Untouchables’ Liberation Area and Youth Against Oppression, also furthered my understanding on the CSSTA, and Taiwan’s economic relation with China and America.

Photo credit: Y.H. Kao/Flickr/CC

The movement later led to me going to Dharamsala to see how Tibet discussed issues of independence. Their situation is that they have a spiritual leader and “had” a political leader, that is  Dalai Lama. People could be more united when having a same religion. t However, Taiwan doesn’t have something like this. And then I later encountered people advocating indigenous independence. I investigated Tibetan independence because I wanted to see how this group of people discussed independence or their nation religiously (or not religiously) even under the oppression of PRC. Regarding indigenous independence, it was for me research into the spread of concepts such as “nation-state” “identity”and “indigeneity”, understanding how people could claim their autonomy through political identity. as people existed before the “nation-state” on this land.

Not every indigenous person identifies with the ROC. It’s sort of offering condolences to the bereaved, but they have a very strong point for advocacy, to connect whether it is with regards to Taiwanese identification or nation-building, the indigenous independence movement has a very strong point to advocate where to begin talking about these issues. So that’s why I began to think this issue was interesting and began to engage with them.

Brian Hioe:  So you would include this in Taiwanese identification?

Lee Tzu-Tung:  The indigenous movement?

Brian Hioe:  Regarding your own identification.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  I think the inspiration for my interest is my thirst for Taiwanese identification. It was at the starting point, that I projected indigenous people as the  “real” “Taiwanese” people. I now know that, It’s politically incorrect, but in the beginning, I felt that they were the people who carry authenticity in the construction of Taiwanese nationalism. But the truth is they might not necessarily identify with Taiwan. They might not identify with the Republic of China. Ands the pursuit for authenticity is more of a political claim, and the content of authenticity changes as the needs of the claims involve.

Brian Hioe:  How do you understand the relation of the Sunflower Movement with China or the KMT? Maybe the most amount of people were opposed to the black box and the least amount of people to free trade. Would you say that this was a movement opposed to China? Or the KMT?

Lee Tzu-Tung:  Of course it was a movement to oppose China !  I think that in reality, like we said earlier, of the people that entered the Legislative Yuan, how many people knew the details of the CSSTA? Of course, we might say in the beginning that we want to properly understand this topic, and see which articles are in the background, and then people felt unfairly treated, and then all these people rushed in.

But if you look at the details of the article, that might not necessarily cause such a large reaction, and mobilize such a large movement. In the background, I think the sentiment motivating people was to oppose China, and oppose the KMT’s behavior.

From my perspective, it is also hard for people to get emotionally attached with simply the system itself, say in this case, a corrupted democratic system. However, people would easily get mobilized by their nationalism, patriotism, their identification towards the country and the  Other, which forms its united identification.

Brian Hioe:  Would you say that this is an anti-free trade movement? It seems like the least amount of people opposed free trade.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  Yes. That’s likely because the issue of free trade requires more thought and examination and the issue is more complicated.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that there is any political slant to Taiwanese social movements? Because I more or less feel that Taiwanese social movements are probably more progressive or at least more left-leaning, regarding many topics.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  I’ve also been thinking about why Taiwanese social movements are quite left-wing. I went to Kenya recently. I feel that for their indigenous movement, actually, it is easier for indigenous have a better position in society through depending on the support of right-wing social enterprises. This might also have to do with Taiwan’s economic position.

I haven’t thought it through totally, but I think that Kenya’s economic situation is worse, and they are used to donations from foreigners. So they will also accept right-wing views more easily regarding establishing their sense of independence. But for Taiwan, it’s economic situation is better. I think it’s easier for brats with a better financial outlook to discuss left-wing ideas. [Laughs]

Brian Hioe:  Maybe it’s easier to have ideals that way.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  Yes, if you haven’t been poor before, you don’t realize how scary it is not to have money. But I also know that you also want to ask if Taiwanese social movement activists want to touch on every issue. You all have this impression, that you have to take a stand on very issue, or make a statement on every issue.

But I feel that also has to do with Taiwan being very used to heroizing some people. Some public figures. So some people may feel that there are leaders who have to make statements on everything or be progressive on certain issues under such pressure.

Photo credit: 中岑 范姜/Flickr/CC

Brian Hioe:  Three years later, what kind of influence do you think this movement has had on Taiwanese politics? Or regarding the social identification of Taiwanese people?

Lee Tzu-Tung:  This quite a hard question…it’s quite broad.

Brian Hioe:  Most people discuss the election of Tsai Ing-Wen or Ko Wen-Je with regards to this. That is to say, the DPP taking power is a form of influence. But also some people claim that the movement hasn’t fundamentally changed anything either in terms of lasting effects.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  Most fundamentally, the existence of Taiwanese identification has been asserted and risen up.

Brian Hioe:  Would you feel that the sense of Taiwanese identification of a lot of young people has gotten stronger?

Lee Tzu-Tung:  Yes. And regarding political participation, this has also strengthened. It’s like Overseas Taiwanese for Democracy (OTD). Or the New Power Party. Or when Tsai Ing-Wen was elected.

I don’t think it’s just these mainstream politicians or the rise of the New Power Party either. Looking at the indigenous movement, this was also when the indigenous movement began to rise, with indigenous participating in what was a mainstream, Han movement, maybe fundamentally grounded on Taiwanese benshengren identity.

If they aren’t a part of this, why would they join? So that’s why they would consider why direction indigenous should go in during a moment of strengthening and deepening of national identity. Consequently, I feel that after this event, indigenous identification also strengthened and deepened, in fact.

Brian Hioe:  What do you think student activists are doing now, three years later? Including yourself and your friends. Perhaps you could talk a bit about the overseas movement here as well.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  Maybe I should begin by talking about myself. I’m working on a film now about this topic,it’s called <Writing the Time Lag>, it is a film involving three years of my political investigation It cludes my experience on working in Su Chiao Hui’s election campaigns, organized indigenous movement, gender equality movements, anti-black box education movement… etc. As an artist but under the cover of a political activist, I could observe the reason of political fever, and also from artist perspective gaining reflection on modernization and its effect on peoples’ lives.

Regarding the question, I think people now had digest their political fever and better it with their strength. For example, I interviewed June Lin. June Lin is currently working in FAPA, DC.She was initially naive when rushing in Legislative Office, but found her passion and vocal point in politics and movement, including in Democracy Tautin (民主鬥爭).

She has an American passport at the same time, therefore,she pays most of her effort on how can she do thing for Taiwan in America, to pursue the aim of Taiwanese independence.

Or YT, who you might know. She’s currently working in the central office of the New Power Party.  I remember when she joined the New Power Party, they didn’t have anyone voted into office. She went back for the sake of one day seeing Taiwan become independent, and now you can see DPP is thriving in Taiwan’s politics.

For indigenous people, like I said earlier there was a strengthening of the indigenous movement, and indigenous identification. The discourse on indigenous independency, or the movement “Passage of Rite” that occurs on August 1st, 2016; demanding transitional justice on Tsai’s policies. The 318 inspire more indigenous people to fight for their autonomy.

As for myself, in the past two years, I’ve been working on this film. What I want to discuss in this film is, what is national identity? Because for me, maybe I look at it more from the perspective of an artist. For the sake of this film, I joined a lot of political organizations, because I wanted to see how different political organizations looked at these kinds of things. I helped organize Philosophy Fridays in Chicago. But when Philosophy Fridays began in Chicago, that was one year after the Sunflower Movement, and I kept that up until recently. And I would feel that overseas students in Taiwan are quite passionate.

Photo credit: 中岑 范姜/Flickr/CC

When organizing Philosophy Fridays in Chicago, I would start to feel something quite terrifying, which is that how Taiwanese people abroad look at social movements in Taiwan is very different from how people in Taiwan look and even join at social movements. Abroad, people who are very realistic might only be able to reflect on things, because they are unable to take direct action. But they’re not actually clear about what is going on in Taiwan.

Tsay Ting-Kuei and others are able to raise a lot of funds abroad, perhaps because their reputations are bit a worse off in Taiwan, but they’re still viewed as social movement leaders or heroes abroad. There’s a lag in the spread of information, maybe. And you also feel that three years ago up to until the past few months, people’s political passions have found outlets. Or have dissolved. Maybe they already learned something, so I feel that it’s become harder to run Cafe Philo in Chicago regarding central issues.

OTD was formed after the movement and then there was the movement to support the Appendectomy Project, and etc. I myself would feel that up till now, we’ve all gone to different places. Whether this is YT in the New Power Party or anyone else, a lot of people have gone to the New Power Party, or elsewhere. But everyone has digested their passion into something that they can properly do themselves, in their own fields, rather than working in something outside their fields.

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that it’s possible for there to be another movement like the Sunflower Movement? Or do you think that this is unlikely. A lot of people claim that it is unlikely now because the DPP has taken power, or at least in the next few years. Some people even say that there might never be another movement like this.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  I think there can only be a very mundane or cliche answer to this, which is to say that movements always appear, and there might be another explosion someday or that movements will continue to continuously occur. Or that people who are currently not concerned with social issues may one day become concerned with social issues.

Personally, I don’t feel that the Sunflower Movement is the accumulation of previous social movements. Well, it is. But previous social movements accumulated because of two forces. One is opposition towards China. The other is opposition towards the Taiwanese government. It’s not a sense of accumulated consciousness or knowledge, but whether this is opposition towards the government, I won’t feel that this is something done by the movement. Many global trends can lead to these events taking place. I feel that whether or not another movement can take place is very difficult to say. It’s very difficult to see as to whether there will be another large social movement such as the Sunflower Movement.

Brian Hioe:  What do you think reactions going forward from China will be?

Lee Tzu-Tung:  How should I think about reactions from China?

Brian Hioe:  I don’t know. Depends on you. [Laughs]

Lee Tzu-Tung:  I think China will try to continue to arrogate power. But China may gradually learn. I’ve gotten to know more people and now understand why China behaves this way better. Since I myself am an artist and I work on film, I could tell you from what I observed on Chinese students work on films, you’ll find that Chinese students working on film have a very strong circumstance, which is that they may make works of art discussing China’s problems. Or exoticizing their own country. And this is welcomed by the international world.

I was originally very critical of these people, thinking it is a gesture of self-orientalizing, but then I began to understand they have no stage or vocal point for their works but the international market. For example, China has now banned  LGBTQ films.. Or in another case, only films that are approved with a “dragon mark” (龍標) now can be openly screened. Or, it is restricted for films to be shown in coffee shops. If there are more than 5 to 15 people, I believe, a screening has to disperse. They have no way to consider that their audience may be a Chinese audience. So I feel that this problem has become more complex.

Promotional image for a talk by Lee Tzu-Tung

Brian Hioe:  Do you think that the Sunflower Movement can influence international social movements? Many people discuss Hong Kong in relation to this and I know that you also went to Hong Kong.  But maybe, given your experiences, you could also talk about Tibet or Xinjiang. Or other places.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  I first helped organized the oversea support for Umbrella Movement in Chicago. I remember at the time, Hong Kong students in Chicago were like, “Hey, should we have kind of reaction?” Because I feel that Hong Kong overseas students were also confused and didn’t know how to respond. But because in Taiwan, I had this form of experience, I helped them organize the oversea support for Umbrella movement which then takes place at Chicago downtown and Chinatown areas.

Afterwards, due to that I feel I was not doing enough.  So I flew to Hong Kong to interview Zeng Rui-Ming (曾瑞明), a professor who writes social commentary and focusing on educational reform about Hong Kong and the main writer of Wikipedia in Hong Kong. Kris Cheng, who has also written for the Washington Post. I think you know him.

Looking back, that was just the beginning, but at the time, it felt like the police were going to drive us out at any moment. When I went in, I was very surprised to see that the occupation encampment or the situational outlook of the Umbrella Movement was very similar to the Sunflower Movement.

They also had a sort of Untouchables’ Liberation Area, with a small Untouchables’ Area and a big Untouchables’ Area. As well as regarding how to position the occupation encampment or the leadership of the movement, the structure was very much like the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, no matter in terms of geography or an arts district in which you could make artistic works. I feel that how quickly the occupation was set up or the style in which things were designed were too similar. Perhaps people in Hong Kong saw images on the news from Taiwan or this led to replication in Hong Kong. Of course, it had its autonomy, and its local differentiations, but in terms of how it looked, or structurally, it may have been replicated.

I also felt that participating in both movements and being outside of Taiwan, I would discover that white professors were much more interested in the Umbrella Movement. Hong Kongers are the people that are directly oppressed by China, and don’t have any real freedom. And Hong Kong has always had better connections to the international world.

Later on, I met some people who participated in Tahir Square in Egypt, and the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. I met Tamer El Said, the director of “In the Last Day of the City”. He had quite an interesting background. He was always very active in Egypt’s social movements, but as he’s apartment just right next to the Tahir square, he didn’t participate in that movement. From his perspective, he has documented all the things that led the Tahir Square movement to happen,  so he was just doing the editing during the movement, he has already too much attachment towards Egypt’s social movement I guess, that at the time, in contrary, don’t want to pin down his opinion. The film later won him awards from Berlin International Film Festival, however, it could not screened in his own country in political reasons. In all, we can see some parallels either on the trend of the movement under global text, or individual’s attitudes toward these major political outbreaks, and it is simply heartbreaking for any creators who could not contribute their film to their people.

Photo credit: Toomore Chiang/Flickr/CC

I wouldn’t think that the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan was just a movement opposed to China, but was a movement opposed to the government under conditions of free trade, or that it was a nationalist movement which used democracy as a frame for its demands. By that what I mean is that democracy was spoken of, as though we believed in democracy, but democracy inherently is not a belief. I believe that the deeper layer of why we discussed protecting democracy was because it has to do with national identification in Taiwan. So we felt that we needed to protect our country’s democracy. We can also see this in social movements in Egypt.

Brian Hioe:  Would you also connect this to Tibet or Xinjiang? Because you mentioned you went to Dharamsala.

Lee Tzu-Tung:  I did. And at the time, I also met Rebiya Kadeer.

I felt that afterwards, Tibetan independence would have greater connection to Taiwan through groups as Students for Free Tibet or similar organizations. It’s a similar situation. Maybe it’s like Shih Shu-Mei’s Against Diaspora, on the one hand, there are English merchants abroad, that colonize China, but China is also a country with a large degree of internal colonialism and also wants to colonize Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, ethnic minorities, or Xinjiang.

So I feel that Tibetans may feel more connections towards Taiwan or Taiwanese may feel more connections towards Tibet going forward. But although I feel there is connection, Tibet is unable to actually do anything, from the perspective of social movements. One can only protest individually.

This will also influence how Taiwanese perceive Chinese human rights, because this will also attract attention to China’s human rights situation. You see this with individuals such as Wang Dan, LGBTQ and feminist activists in China, or Lee Ming-Che, or Liu Xiaobo.