Interview: Chen Wei-Ting
Chen Wei-Ting was one of the leading figures of the Sunflower Movement and currently is a member of the New Power Party. The following interview was conducted on September 28th, 2017.
Brian Hioe: So I want to first want to ask, how did you begin participating in social movements? What kind of issues did you participate in and for what reason?
Chen Wei-Ting: The earliest social movements I participated in was probably in 2006 or 2007, ten years ago, when I was in my second year of high school. Because of participating in the newspaper club at Jianguo High School, I began interviewing people abut urban evictions, participating in the movement to defend against forced land evictions on Treasure Hill.
Chen Wei-Ting during the Sunflower Movement. Photo credit: Artemas Liu/Flickr/CC
I also participated in the movement to defend the Losheng Sanatorium and with regards to indigenous land evictions. In 2008, during my third year of high school, I participated in the Wild Strawberry movement and encountered issues related to China. Afterwards, I went to Tsinghua University for college and started the Radical Notes student group, a social movement group. In 2012, that was when the anti-media monopoly movement take place, and I also participated in the Hualon labor strike. At that time, there were also issues of land appropriations in Miaoli, which led up to the Sunflower movement.
Brian Hioe: What were you doing during 318?
Chen Wei-Ting: In 2013, when the CSSTA was signed, there were some protests in front of the Legislative Yuan already. The Black Island Youth Front was formed then. From June to July 2013, the Black Island Youth Front was a loose organization, so I participated in the demonstration then, but as a member of the Protect Miaoli Youth.
Then from June 2013 to March 2014, I was primarily tied up with events in Miaoli. But up to March 2014, including the week before 318, everyone felt that things were falling apart. Lai Zhongqiang and the Economic Democracy Union had already declared the 120 Hours To Protect Democracy Action, but there were not many participants.
On 317, when Chang Ching-Chung forcefully pushed the CSSTA into law, we thought there should be some kind of response. It was quite loose, there was no real organization, just those of us who worked together including Huang Kuo-Chang, Lin Fei-Fan, and myself, held a meeting wondering what we should do next. So we decided to charge the Legislative Yuan at 9 PM.
Brian Hioe: During the 23 days within the Legislative Yuan, what was your daily life like?
Chen Wei-Ting: The first week was more disorganized, because four or five days after the beginning of the occupation, we weren’t sure when the police would rush in. We couldn’t sleep and were more panicked. The first week, we thought that it would be a temporary activity. We didn’t think that the movement would last longer than a week. In past occupation movements, the longest occupations, such as the Wild Lily movement, occupied the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial for only six days before it ended.
We thought that it would not be a long-term movement. We didn’t think that there would be a need to form a very systematic division of labor. Because we thought it could end at any time. This situation lasted until the end of the first week. It was very spontaneous. But four or five days later, we went to meet with NGOs outside, and responded to journalists very spontaneously and journalists were there 24/7.
Up until the end of the first week, when during the weekend, the Executive Yuan incident took place. Everyone felt that because conflict had reached this point and Ma Ying-Jeou and Jiang Yi-Huah had responded to the movement, and looked like the wouldn’t back down, this would have to be longer-term battle.
That’s why at the end of the first week, we decided to establish a clearer division of labor. After that, there was a clearer division between working groups, such as the media group, the news group, the group which handled daily needs, and etc. But the important decisions were made outside the Legislative Yuan by leaving and going to an office near the Legislative Yuan to meet.
Photo credit: 中岑 范姜/Flickr/CC
So we would get up, prepare for the first press conference of the day at 10 AM, respond to journalists’ questions or release the first press releases that needed to be released that day. After that, in the afternoon, at 3 or PM, there might be another press conference. In the middle, different things might take place. We might have different interviews or have to attend different meetings, Every day, there might be some sudden conflicts that we would have to take care of.
Up to 6 or 7 PM, at 7 PM, we would have another meeting, so we would have to leave the Legislative Yuan and head to the office to have a meeting. At 9 or 10 PM, we would return to the Legislative Yuan, to hold the assembly in the Legislative Yuan until 10 PM or 11 PM. Every day was like that. There were a lot of meetings like that, as well as interviews, and press releases.
Brian Hioe: What about the big events during the movement, such as 324 or the decision to withdraw from the Legislative Yuan? For example, there was some criticism of the decision making group within the Legislative Yuan then.
Chen Wei-Ting: 323 and 324 took place about a week after the occupation began. Many things had happened during that week, of course. But people were waiting for a response from the government, so the situation was that people felt that sitting in the Legislative Yuan, with such a large protest, we hoped for a response from the Executive Yuan and Jiang Yi-Huah. Wondering if the Executive Yuan would back down because we had taken such extreme action.
But then we discovered that Jiang Yi-Huah didn’t plan on backing down, nor did Ma Ying-Jeou. As a result, there was the view on-site that the movement should radicalize because they weren’t planning on backing down. There was naturally this sort of discourse.
This is fairly normal for social movements, I think, in many movements it is like this. In the beginning, the movement may take the form of more peaceful forms of protest, but after there is a lack of response from the government, or when there is the need to put pressure on the government, a more radical faction will emerge. So as leaders of the movement, at least in the public eye, it is very hard to lead everyone towards a more radical means.
Of course, everyone thought that a more radical step might be occupying the whole of the Legislative Yuan. Before the incident in the Executive Yuan, at least two or three groups tried to charge into the assembly chambers in the Legislative Yuan, to occupy all of the Legislative Yuan. This wasn’t successful.
But this kind of pressure wasn’t just towards the government, this was also towards the leadership of the movement, leading to challenges in maintaining this type of peaceful protest. That’s what took place then. Compared to Hong Kong, though, it was still more moderate.
During the Umbrella Movement, the same thing took place. When Joshua Wong and the student unions were leading the movement, a more radical, localist faction would clash with the movement center regarding leadership. You could see that as fighting over the stage that the leaders of the movement stood on, you could say.
This didn’t go so far during the Sunflower movement, but there were still people in the movement that felt that peaceful means were not effective and wanted to escalate the movement. So before the Executive Yuan incident, it felt like there was this pressure, and we didn’t know how to address this.
Beforehand, if you wanted to confront this pressure, there are a few ways to deal with it. You could lead everyone to organize a more radical form of action that might lead to conflict. But the risks of this are very high, because you don’t know how this will affect views of the movement. The other way is that you open it up to democratic discussion. But this was also another difficulty of the movement, because we didn’t know how to organize this kind of discussion. The movement was without borders, it was hard to decide how as a participant and who wasn’t, and who could vote and who couldn’t.
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In 2014 in the Wild Strawberry movement, at the time, it was organized sort of like the Occupy Wall Street movement. But that sort of process of decision making eventually leads to an inability to make decisions. Meetings become very long and eventually the movement can’t make decisions on how to proceed.
We were aware of this and wanted to avoid this kind of situation. At the same time, there was no way to hand over decision making ability to the people at large. Caught in between, we also felt very conflicted. In the end, when the Executive Yuan incident broke out.
But there was another group of people at the Department of Social Sciences that we also knew. They had a gathering spot to organize. And they raised whether we should charge the Executive Yuan. This decision we knew beforehand and agreed to this and this was discussed by involved organizations and NGOs. Nobody strongly opposed this, but there was consensus to try and divide this action from us. This group of people was pushing for this action, but we would split the actions, in order that the success or failure of the action wouldn’t fall onto the heads of the Legislative Yuan occupation. This was what we agreed to.
In the beginning, there wasn’t the view that we should charge into the Executive Yuan itself. And there wasn’t the desire to occupy the Executive Yuan itself, just the space outside the Executive Yuan. Similar to when we occupied the Legislative Yuan, there was the expectation that this would be cleared by the police relatively quickly. We didn’t think that another group of people had the view that they wanted to charge into the Executive Yuan building itself and to occupy this.
Of course, when the incident broke out, this led to conflict in the Legislative Yuan, because those were those who wanted to stick to more peaceful and rational means, wondering why there were people doing this. Some people were very excited, because they thought that more dramatic action was needed. So there were many people that participated in this action.
At the time, I didn’t participate in this action. I didn’t go on-site either. Because our consensus was that these were two actions which were autonomous of each other and self-organized. On the one hand, you felt that a lot of the pressure which had built up in the movement had found a release, but on the other hand, you didn’t know what would come next. After police violence broke out, seeing everyone get injured, it was very hard to watch. There was also the fear that after the police cleared the Executive Yuan, they would move to clear the Legislative Yuan next, since 7,000 police officers had been deployed in order to deal with the situation. That was the division that night.
Later on, there wasn’t any ability to continue occupying the Executive Yuan, so it continued like that afterwards.
Brian Hioe: Can you talk a bit about the notion to occupy the Legislative Yuan?
Chen Wei-Ting: Originally, there were people that wanted to establish connections between the inside and outside of the Legislative Yuan. This was also discussed during meeting, but not many people approved of this. I think on the inside, there were some considerations. Because there was the leadership which occupied the Legislative Yuan, these people made decisions with NGOs, and other people couldn’t enter and exit the Legislative Yuan freely. The police blocked the entrances, although people could enter and exit through the second floor. People could come in, but people couldn’t enter and exit so freely. It led to this situation in which the police also blocked the people outside from the leadership-level inside, including the dissidents.
There were people who would enter, maybe treating this as a tourist site, and anyone could enter. The media was within the Legislative Yuan 24/7, anybody who was unsatisfied with the leadership could occupy the speaker’s podium and could express what they wanted to. This could all take place. But because the police were there, this didn’t take place.
While those who wanted to connect the inside and the outside of the Legislative Yuan felt this would radicalize the Legislative Yuan and that leadership power wouldn’t be concentrated in the hands of a small amount of people, the leadership of the movement felt that if this took place, there would be a heavy price to pay. That if people could freely enter and exist, you might confront like what I discussed earlier, direct democratic discussion. Discussion is, of course, healthy, but that could lead to a paralysis of the movement.
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Furthermore, after opening up the inside and the outside of the Legislative Yuan, it would be much more difficult to maintain the occupation. There were stairs in which people could enter the different government offices. We couldn’t let it become an anarchistic situation in people could freely destroy things in the Legislative Yuan. This could hurt the movement.
And with a new space opened up for the movement, who would take charge of the people there? Because in Jinan Road and Qingdao East Road, there were groups that had their own stages and formed their own spaces, with different programs set up for discussion. If there was another space, that would also have to be taken care of. Because of those considerations, that we would have to pay a heavy price to maintain constant communication, and maintaining order under those circumstances, we didn’t advocate this.
Brian Hioe: So the next question is about the decision to withdraw from the Legislative Yuan? Can you talk a bit about this?
Chen Wei-Ting: Near the end of the movement, we felt that we were so exhausted and that we were always afraid that something would go wrong in the movement that could affect how the movement was perceived in the long-run. It was like a pressure cooker. There were lots of problem within the movement. The first problem is that our approval rating was declining at the time.
In the very beginning, our approval rating was so high that we could not imagine it. 80% of Taiwanese supported our occupation. That actually scared me. But in the last week of the movement, it had changed. Only 49% of Taiwanese supported us and 50% of Taiwanese opposed us. So first, our support had faded. And then there were other problems within the movement.
For example, we heard that some reporters had found used condoms in the restrooms. Some reporters wanted to write about these sort of scandals in the movement. There were lots of these kind of trivial things, which were annoying. But it could undermine the legitimacy of the movement. After the largest protest of the movement on March 30th, we had been thinking of how we could withdraw. Before Wang Jinpyng announced that he wouldn’t hold negotiations over the legislation of the bill before the cross-straits oversight bill had been passed, we had already to begin to discuss the worst-case scenario if we should withdraw.
So that week, we were discussing if Wang Jinpyng would make any response. After the first week, we more or less knew that to resolve the situation, only Wang Jinpyng could take care of this. Because the power of the Legislative speaker is very significant and the issue was caught between conflict between him and Ma Ying-Jeou. In the last two weeks, we were directing a lot of our messaging towards Wang Jinpyng in order to get him to come out and make a statement.
But we were discussing, if he didn’t do that, if there was any way to withdraw. Because we knew that if the movement continued to stay in this place, its legitimacy would continue to decline. Different groups were looking for means to resolve this situation, including Ker Chien-Ming raising different issues that could provide a justification for the movement to withdraw. And people would come to express different opinions.
In the end, it was this situation with Wang Jinpyng. So before this, there was messages we received saying that this might happen, and we more or less knew this. But there was no secret agreement. And when we received this message, everyone knew that there might be this decision made. But we didn’t know what day they would do this. And I remember when Wang Jinpyng said this, this was on April 6th. We heard this in the morning, saying that Wang Jinpyng would hold a press conference stating this. We more or less knew that this thing would finally happen. He held a press conference outside with legislators then came into to meet with us and shake hands or whatever. We didn’t experience too much pressure from this. Nobody demonstrated.
Brian Hioe: To change directions, do you Taiwanese identity is related to your participation in social movements? If so, how?
Photo credit: Abby Chen/Flickr/CC
Chen Wei-Ting: Our generation is the one after the Chen administration took power and changed the history textbooks, that is, for those born in 1990. So we encountered a more pro-Taiwan view of history in middle school and civic education. This was also true in high school, in which the teaching of history was different from other generations. In high school, even if you might not clearly know the theoretical elaboration of Taiwanese history, compared to other generations, you might lean more towards “natural independence.”
But when I was a sophomore and junior, that was when I encountered social movements, such as protests against land eviction on Treasure Hill, which was let me know what it meant to be “left-wing.” As well as Marxism. It was from these kinds of things that I began to know about it. I would start to read books about protests in Europe or Japan, then look for left-wing local history in Taiwan.
What you encounter first is reading about those in the underground Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s, up until the 1960s and 1970s. Then it was reading Chen Fangming’s books. He wrote some books early on, because he used to be on the blacklist because of participation in the Taiwanese independence movement, and he wrote some books about topics such as Xie Xuehong, Su Beng, and etc.
The reason why our generation knows about Su Beng is because a group of people at NTU called the Dalawasao Society preserved Su Beng’s thought for this generation. But ten years before that, most people had not heard of Su Beng. It was Chen Fangming that recorded his thoughts more systematically before that. So it was reading Chen Fangming writing about Su Beng or Xie Xuehong that I learned about Communism that didn’t have connections only to the underground Chinese Communist Party, but also had connections to the advocacy of Taiwanese independence.
Chen Fangming also considered the issue of a path for left independence, between the different aspects of left and right and independence and unification. To consider theories of Taiwanese independence. Reading about Taiwan’s history of student movements in the 1980s, understanding that kind of theoreticization about Taiwanese independence, that gradually established my own understanding of this issue. And later on, in participating in the Wild Strawberry movement, that strengthened my knowledge of this.
I think that in this generation, originally there was this position of natural independence, in which this background is quite clear. From the 2008 Wild Strawberry movement to the 2012 anti-media monopoly movement and the Sunflower movement, looking back, before 2008, we might not have concretely felt the Chinese threat. Because everyone knows that the Chinese government has missiles pointed at Taiwan.
But before 2008, this threat was seen as a threat from the outside. In daily life, you wouldn’t encounter any direct issues. After Ma Ying-Jeou began to open up Taiwan to Chinese trade in 2008, the direct influence on freedoms from the the time of the Wild Strawberries to the anti-media monopoly movement demonstrating against deteriorating press freedoms, and the 2014 CSSTA had very comprehensive influence on society. This makes you feel very directly what the threat from China to Taiwan is. Of course, that will add to the strength of your identification or your motivation to participate in events.
Brian Hioe: Do you think that there is any political orientation to social movements? Most participants in Taiwanese social movements state that they are left-leaning, for example, and take progressive stances on a number of issues ranging from opposition to the death penalty to support for same-sex marriage. Very few people would say they are right-wing, for example.
Chen Wei-Ting: But wouldn’t it be unusual for social movement participants to say they are right-wing in America, as well?
Brian Hioe: Well, there are some people. But maybe to rephrase it, like, there are both left and right-wing nationalisms. But contemporary Taiwanese nationalism is probably more a left-wing nationalism. Not like the right-wing nationalisms we have seen in recent years across the world, for example.
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Chen Wei-Ting: I think it’s like this. Whenever a movement appears, it is being pulled forward by civil society in addition to nationalism. Taiwanese society already has a very strong opposition to the Chinese Communist Party, but that has no inherent connection to a desire for democracy.
This may be because it comes from the era of KMT control. This kind of opposition can transform into a form of discrimination against Chinese people, as a form of nationalism. This form of nationalism does not necessarily have any connection to Taiwanese national identity, since it is constituted primarily from opposition to Chinese Communism. This spans different generations in Taiwan.
After Ma Ying-Jeou took power in 2008, for some deep Blue people, there may have been some changes because Ma Ying-Jeou began to lean towards China. But this society originally did not have positive feelings towards China, which mixes together with Taiwanese nationalism with opposition to Chinese Communism from the KMT era.
So this kind of oppositional view could theoretically become a right-wing form of nationalism, such as fascism. But why is it that it seems as though there’s never an emergence of an extreme right-wing in Taiwanese social movements?
I think there are a few reasons for that. Compared to Hong Kong, for example, the right-wing is weaker in Taiwan. One of the reasons is that we don’t actually have direct interactions with China the way that Hong Kong does. Or as with Europe, in which there is direct contact with immigrants and refugees that enter society. For Taiwan, there is still a limited amount interactions with Chinese immigrants or students. It’s not as heavy as Hong Kong. This is one reason.
Second, this is also because Taiwanese civil society has a certain level of strength. As compared to Hong Kong, every time we have a movement, such as the Wild Strawberry movement or the anti-media monopoly movement, behind this, there is a strong tendency towards nationalism behind this.
But in the end, whatever issue is at stake, this is always linked back to human rights or democracy and the movement won’t simply be a movement directly about nationalism. It’s because groups from the opposition movement of the 1980s have demonstrated up to the present and human rights groups concern themselves with different issues.
The alliance group opposed to the CSSTA was formed by over 20 NGO groups. The leaders these groups were mostly formed by people from the Wild Lily Movement. In this past twenty years, they have continued to work on these issues, and these issues included issues of gender and sexuality, labor issues, and other different issues.
An organization like the Taiwan Association for the Promotion of Human Rights was founded in the 1970s and continued up until now. Because these organizations have been concerned with issues for a long period of time. They already have a strong sense of national identity and so every time there is a civil awakening on the part of society, so they can push for human rights, or labor rights, or democratic rights, or gender/sexuality, in order to lead this civil awakening and guide it in the proper direction.
It’s very interesting to compare it to Hong Kong. Hong Kong doesn’t have a long historical tradition of protest the way that Taiwan does. For us, we have a generation which came before us, the Wild Lily generation. And before that the Formosa incident generation. There are at least two generation of protests which have established a tradition, leaving behind some organizations, which have set down some principles.
In 1990, we had the Wild Lily movement, that was a very strong protest, not just protesting the local government, but the government across the Taiwan Straits. But for Hong Kong, in 1990, they only had 1989, they had solidarity activities for the Tiananmen Square massacre, hoping that democratic freedoms could be established in China. That was before the handover of power, so there wasn’t a direct protest of the government in Hong Kong. I think that is a large difference.
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This also touches on why we can work with our previous generation, such as people like Huang Kuo-Chang, or even the DPP in some respects. In Hong Kong, it’s quite clear that they have the old people from the Democratic Party and the Civic Party, with whom they can’t cooperate with. They don’t share a historical narrative with them. Those are people that are skeptical of China. But in their considerations, they support the legal system of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s civil disobedience comes from young people that have grown up without ties with their previous generation. But even when we have different views than our previous generation, we share the same historical narrative. So I feel that compared to Hong Kong, this is why the people’s will has tended more to the left. There is this set of fundamental values established through three generations that has continuously existed. And the other aspect is what I said before, that we don’t have such direct contact with China.
Brian Hioe: Why do you think young people are not afraid to tackle these issues? If in the past there were sentiments of anti-communism and etc. I actually thought people who be skeptical of left-wing ideas when I got here, for example. You can still see it sometimes, such as the Liberty Times accusing striking China Airlines workers of being pro-China.
Chen Wei-Ting: I think this is established through history. In participating in social movements in 2009 up until now, there are two circumstances I hope to break through. One is like what you said before, this skepticism of labor as agents of China, as like you raised with regards to the Liberty Times, using these feelings of anti-communism established by the KMT.
But from after 2009, whether with regards to the rural movement—every year, during the fall, we would participate in an event called Autumn Struggle. It was an event when every group would get together to try and make the left-wing into something which was more politically correct as a demand. For two years, the topic of Autumn Struggle was “Turn the country left.” To make being left into something positive in meaning, into something which people were familiar with.
Those few years in the anti-eviction movement and the farmer’s movement, they would think of connect the issue into a deeper critique of capitalism. So this is something with regards to political education. When you are sending out a press release, discussing the issue, or attending a talk, it will raise the issue of criticizing capitalism, and raising the question of left-wing values.
From the 1980s, there was a divide between the left and the right seen in social movements. There were two large student networks then, one called the Quanxuelian and the other called the Mingxuelian. Most of the Quanxuelian went into the DPP. The Mingxuelian, like Qiu Yubin and people like that, went into the labor movement. And later people would start the NGO groups, like I raised earlier. Or enter labor unions.
Of course, there has been that kind of tradition from the 1980s up until now, and these people are now our teachers or heads of organizations. And they have gone through this sort of left-wing political education. But up until 2009 to 2011, when these organizations were growing and the Taiwan Rural Front was discussing rural issues, they also wanted to raise left-wing political criticism as a way to lead this issue further. Anti-eviction groups as well. More directly so with labor.
These organizations had the consciousness of anti-capitalism or being left-wing, which allowed this to become politically correct. So looking back it as a political turn leftwards, it may have to do with that point in time, when we were addressing those issues.
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Brian Hioe: Because the most amount of people may have opposed the black box and the least amount of people opposed free trade, how would you explain this? In between this may have been opposition to China or the KMT.
Chen Wei-Ting: Taiwanese society is not opposed to the issue of opposing free trade. The movement opposing the CSSTA began in June 2013 up until March 2014. In between, the discourse which built up around the movement was regarding democratic process, since it was less necessary to built up about opposing China.
More discourse was built up around Chinese capital investing in different industries, potentially affecting national security. This was what was discussed the most. And with regards to the effects each industry.
But in that half year, the fundamental issue of free trade was very rarely raised. So when the movement broke out, this why was it so difficult to change direction to opposing free trade. Because no discourse had built up around that.
For these groups which frequently raise the need to oppose free trade, you also have to ask them why they didn’t build up a discourse in that half year regarding why free trade needed to be opposed. You can’t also blame those organizations either, because Taiwan generally lacks organizations opposed to free trade or with experience of this. Because we very rarely hard opportunities to address this.
The largest protest against free trade before that was in 1988, before Taiwan was going to join the WTO, because of problems with agricultural products. That was the beginning of the 502 Farmer’s Movement. That was Taiwan’s largest protest against free trade and there were not much protests against free trade after that. But after that, there were very few FTAs signed that would have significant influence on Taiwan. Because that circumstance of signing FTAs was very rare, it was hard to establish discussion of the issue.
At the time, what we confronted was not just the CSSTA. We also had to discuss the TPP and RCEP. But to discuss this, it was very hard, because free trade agreements are inherently a black box. The agreement isn’t open.
On the other hand, when compared to somewhere like South Korea, South Korea has 23 think tanks researching the effects of free trade. Taiwan only has three. And these evaluations that they produced only tell you in very rough terms how much the GDP will grow by.
For each of the over one thousand industries that will be affected by the FTA, there’s not the ability to research this. So when you can’t produce research about this to begin with and have materials to evaluate. In spite of Taiwan’s academic circles wanting to look into this and create an assessment, there’s no way to do this.
There aren’t even clear materials and you have to raise the issue of opposition to free trade with the government. If we raised the issue of free trade then, on television shows, or in discussions with politicians, one-on-one, I wouldn’t have any way to have a set of materials prepared to have arguing points. I think overall, Taiwan’s social movement circles also presently lacks the ability to have such a debate.
But that doesn’t mean that Taiwan’s social movement circles are too weak, but that information is too much in the hands of the government. I believe that the government probably hasn’t conducted assessments on the effects on Taiwanese industries. It just follows the myth that opening up industries will lead to growth and to argue for this in highly abstract terms. I believe that this returns to the fact that Taiwan is a country which has signed few FTAs and produce information regarding the effects of economic opening up of Taiwanese industries. This is what is different between Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Brian Hioe: Three years later, what kind of influence do you think the movement has had? And what do you think social movement participants such as yourself are doing now? You’re working in the New Power Party now, after all. Some people will say that the influence of the Sunflower movement was Tsai Ing-Wen getting elected, or Ko Wen-Je getting elected, and that a lot of social movement activists are now within the system, for example.
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Chen Wei-Ting: You can divide it between several categories. Some have entered the government or the DPP, as legislative assistants or other roles. Some have gone to the Third Force, such as the SDP or NPP. Some have in the past two years entered elections. And some of the older generation, such as Huang Kuo-Chang, have been voted into office. Some people continue on in social movements. And some people have gone abroad to study.
I think it’s like the Wild Lily movement, in which several different routes have appeared that people have taken. Some directly enter the opposition party, starting off as aides and enter elections. Or they spend a long time as somebody’s assistant and slowly rise up, if they are found to be suitable for elections, or they might just stay as assistants. Some people might start as district representatives then later run as legislators or mayors.
The archetype of this is someone like the municipal head of Taoyuan, Chen Wen-Tsan. After graduating from graduate school, he began from grassroots politics.
This is typical of the New Tide faction within the DPP. Of this generation, a lot of us running for elections also began from this New Tide background. And there are several different options for entering politics, such as running for office as part of the DPP or as part of the Third Force. But doing political work nonetheless.
The second type of person is continuing to stay in social movement organizations. Some people stay and continue to work in social movement organizations. An example is Lai Zhongqiang. He’s never run for office or gone to study abroad. He just continued to work in NGOs.
The third type is going abroad to study. Such as what Huang Kuo-Chang did. Or what Fan Yun did. This kind of people went and got their Ph. Ds, then came back after ten years, entering politics when they were around 40 or so. All these people play different roles. There is a need to have people who do political work and become familiar with the legislative or executive mechanisms. NGOs serve a long-term role to provide oversight.
Going overseas has a special point, which is that they have to raise foresight for the future. Because these people have academic tools at their disposal, so that key moments, they can raise certain values founded on an academic basis. Such as someone like Wu Jiehmin. In 2008, he did a detailed analysis of China and established the discourse of a third way to evaluate China. This discourse has persuasiveness because it is founded on his 20 years of researching China. We also need people like that.
So I think that the paths people have taken is about the same as twenty years ago, between entering politics, staying in social movements, or entering academia. It’s from this background. Of course, entering politics, there are different choices too, such as entering the Third Force or entering the DPP. Xiaoxin, for example, is someone who has taken the path of not depending on any political party and using youth entrepreneurship to survive. That’s a harder path. These are the different paths people have taken.
Three years later, what changes have taken place? I think that the largest change is with regards to two aspects. The first is regarding issues of sovereignty. Taiwan’s issues regarding sovereignty stem from the constitution specifying Taiwan under the framework of China. From 1998, Lee Teng Hui’s two nations discourse and the establishment of a hard line position, then to Chen Shui-Bian’s more compromised position, with the Four Noes. This returned to a two countries discourse in 2008.
But then in 2008, Ma Ying-Jeou returned to the foundation of the 1992 Consensus, taking the view that Taiwan was a part of China. But an accomplishment of the Sunflower Movement was breaking through this route of the 1992 Consensus. That is, the belief that peaceful cross-strait relations could be built on the basis of the 1992 Consensus, which looked like peace but the limited effects of were made evident in the Sunflower Movement. As a result, after Tsai Ing-Wen took office, she went back to refusing to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus, just acknowledging the historical facts of the 1992 talks. Leaning a bit more towards independence.
There are still shifts in this, but within this framework, there haven’t been too much changes. So I think the Sunflower Movement’s first accomplishment has been pushing the issue of sovereignty more towards independence a little. Of course, declaring independence or organizing an independence referendum are still faraway goals.
The second accomplishment is that fundamentally I believe that the Sunflower Movement accomplished the first actual political transition of power in Taiwan. In other post-authoritarian countries, after the collapse of the authoritarian government, a new government takes power and pushes for transitional justice, then accomplished complete democracy. Taiwan, after the end of the martial law period, it took another thirty years for an opposition party to take legislature.
I believe that this is the last turning point for Taiwan’s democratic movement. Because in 2000 to 2008, the DPP took power, but there was no way to accomplish much of the fundamental work of democratization. For example, regarding KMT party assets. Or uneven distribution of resources between ethnic groups, as seen in pension reforms. Or legal limitations on freedoms justified in the name of national security. Referendum. Freedom of assembly. And other leftover issues.
It has to be accomplished during the present period in power and it presently looks as if we are headed in that direction. But there might be some shifts in between and there is also the possibility of regress. It looks like we are still in the process of that.
Brian Hioe: What do you think China’s reaction to that is? Do you think that they will continue to use the same methods as under Ma Ying-Jeou, or using economic means to try and influence Taiwan? Or will they adopt more threatening methods, as we see in the Lee Ming-Che incident?
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Chen Wei-Ting: I discussed two of the three shifts, regarding complete democratization. But can you also say that this led to a shift leftwards in Taiwan’s economic thinking? I don’t think that it accomplished this.
But people may think more positively of social movements and have a criticism of economic inequality. Because these things weren’t discussed so clearly in the movement. It didn’t accomplish a very solid result.
What kind of reactions will China have? After the Sunflower movement, I think it can’t find any new way to take care of their Taiwan issue. During the Ma Ying-Jeou period, it was very clear, that they hoped through economic means, they could eventually have political results. Through signing the CSSTA. But this was blocked during the Sunflower movement.
As for their new means of doing things, after Tsai Ing-Wen took power and refused to acknowledge the 1992 Consensus. There hasn’t been a very large response from China after this, maybe because the 19th National Congress hasn’t happened yet and will only take place in October. Xi Jinping has to take care of issues regarding maintaining power and domestic issues in China first. So what the effects will be for Taiwan will be clearer after the 19th National Congress.
But overall, I think that for the CCP, what you will see most clearly is that it will attempt to local governments as a target for the United Front. These kind of activities began under the Ma Ying-Jeou administration but continue under the DPP. In the past year, there have been over one hundred such events in Taiwan organized in this way. The most evident of this is the Sing! China event.
But this kind of United Front, I don’t believe will have any particular effectiveness. I also don’t think they will think so either, even if they managed to find a good target with Ko Wen-Je this time. They don’t pay a lot of attention to the KMT now, because the KMT doesn’t really have the ability to win votes anymore.
Ko Wen-Je can attract young people, so he may be a better target, With the Sing! China incident, this route has also run into some limits. So I think that what they can continue is try to organize these events, but I think these events have limited effectiveness. In terms of responses from nationalistic netizens and others, these events also seem to be seen as useless and many within the conservative faction of the Chinese government also seem to share this view. It might be a cycle, in which these activities are organized in order to show that there is still the possibility of unification, to pacify both the radical and conservative factions of the Chinese government.
But why have these kind of events broken out? It may be because organizing these kind of events has become limited in effectiveness, as a result of which this gives more space for the radical faction to maneuver. This is also a product of a conflict between the radical and conservative factions of the CCP and its hard to tell what the future may be.
It’ll become clearer after the 19th National Congress. I’m not sure the Lee Ming-Che incident fits in here. I think the Lee Ming-Che incident may be an exception, perhaps having arrested the wrong person. It looks as though they didn’t plan for his arrest, they might have wanted to release him quietly originally through negotiating with the KMT, but then it blew up into a big event. Before the 19th National Congress, it may not be able to be taken care of, since Xi Jinping can’t come off as weak. We’ll have to see it as to after.
Brian Hioe: Lastly, do you think that there could be another event such as the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan again? And do you think the Sunflower Movement can influence international social movements?
Chen Wei-Ting: Like the mobilization before time’s Sing! China incident, I think this possibility of there being another movement is quite possible. Including before the incident, nobody thought that there would be a group of people who charged in and that it would become severe enough that they would cancel the concert. And this incident also gives other groups or organizations hoping to organize this kind of cross-strait event a warning.
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Because there are too many similar events and its hard to know which one might blow up into a large incident. This result also surprised me that it was strong enough that it could stop the event. It makes us realize that Taiwanese social movements are a reflexive defense mechanism. That once a line is crossed, an eruption occurs. This is quite healthy for society.
Before the Sunflower Movement, nobody thought that this would occur as well. But on the surface, it seems as though nobody has a strong sense of opposition to all this talk from Ko and others that both sides of the Taiwan Straits share a common destiny, but once something crosses a line, it will meet a strong response. So if in the future, politicians behave too strangely, I believe that this kind of event may still break out. There’s no way to predict that, but I believe that it may occur.
With regards to influence on the international world, there may be mutual aid between Hong Kong and Taiwan. There’s a push between the two sides, that when one side tries something, the other side can maybe also try it. The attempt to charge into the Legislative Council in Hong Kong to prevent development of the New Territories took place three months after the end of the Sunflower Movement, after all. It may have been trying that tactic. Japan, it’s also the same, that there is protest of the Diet.
I think that there may be influence in terms of tactics. But every society has different social contexts. Hong Kong may be closer but Japanese issues are very different. Confronting China, the movement has a different attitude. So apart from influence in terms of tactics, I’m not sure there would be any particularly deep influence.