Interview: Lin Fei-Fan
Lin Fei-Fan was one of the leading figures of the Sunflower Movement and is currently an MA student at LSE in the UK. The following interview was conducted on September 18th, 2017.
Brian Hioe: How did you begin participating in social movements? Why would you participate? For what reasons and regarding what topics?
Lin Fei-Fan: I began in 2008, during the Wild Strawberry movement. The background was that after Ma Ying-jeou took power in 2008, he began to open talks with China. In October and November, some high-ranking government officials came to Taiwan. This includes Zhang Mingqing, the head of the Taiwan Affairs Office, coming to Taiwan in October and in November when Chen Yunlin came to Taiwan.
The background was that in 2008, Taiwanese people were quite worried about the actions of the KMT, that they might undertake actions which affected Taiwan’s sovereignty. The other side of things is that many feared that under the control of the KMT, China and Taiwan would become more and more close and Taiwan sovereignty would be slowly drained away both politically and economically. The Wild Strawberry Movement took place under these circumstances.
When Chen Yunlin came to to Taiwan, to protect him, Ma Ying-Jeou mobilized 7,000 police officers. Usually for national-level events, around 6,000 police are deployed. But for Chen Yunlin coming to Taiwan as the representative of China, over 7,000 police were used just to protect him—a single person. In between happened many things, including banners being seized from us by police, protests, and large-scale clashes.
At the time, in 2008, I was studying for my BA, and I concretely participated in social movements then. Before, I also had been concerned with some political topics, such as some more political issues and social issues. But it wasn’t to the level that I actually participated in reality. So 2008 was the first time I participated in a social movement.
Lin Fei-Fan during the Sunflower Movement. Photo credit: Artemas Liu/WikiCommons/CC
Brian Hioe: Can you talk a bit about the anti-media monopoly movement? Because that was when you began to see your and Chen Wei-Ting’s name in the news.
Lin Fei-Fan: The anti-media monopoly movement was in 2012. You can say that from 2008 until this point in time, when the Sunflower Movement took place in 2014, there were many social movement events. If you look at it continuously, the Wild Strawberry movement broke out in 2008.
After it ended, in 2009 and 2010 a wave of land struggles broke out. The first time that an excavator drove into fields in Dapu and began tearing up land was in 2010. That was the first Dapu incident. At the same time in 2011, there was the construction of the Kuokuang Naphtha plant, with the plan to build the Naphtha plant in Changhua, which led to large-scale social opposition.
So we participated in these movements. Between 2011 and 2012, the Shilin Wang family struggle also took place. In these years, social movements accumulated.
And in 2012, there was the anti-media monopoly movement. For me, that was quite a large a point of transition. Because we can say that the Wild Strawberry movement was directly political. It had to do with opposition to the China factor. It was an important transition.
But those concerned with the China factor would begin to speak out in this network of social activists. It was a separate phenomenon that people were concerned with the land or environment, the disprivileged or labor, opposed to developmentalism, and opposed to free trade.
These two movements came together for the first time in the anti-media movement, as I look at it. These were the two crucial factors in the movement. Because for those of us concerned with media monopoly, with Tsai Eng-meng buying up media, or orchestrating these kinds of mergers and acquisitions, there would be no government oversight over this.
At the same time, the China factor played an important factor in this. Because behind Tsai Eng-meng was Chinese capital. The anti-media monopoly movement in 2012 was these two movements coming together, I feel. You can connect this to when in 2013, the issue of the CSSTA began to come up. It was through these networks.
So I think in these networks, opposition to free trade or developmentalism, and rising national identity, were originally separate movements that didn’t join together. Like parallels lines.
There would be debates with people concerned with China-related issues criticizing those concerned with free trade or development as “left plastics” (左膠), and not being concerned with these issues regarding the nation-state. Not paying attention to issues of Chinese empire.
Is this really left-wing? We would criticize them that way. However, that would lead to those criticism of those concerned with national identity issues that they didn’t pay attention to class or the inequalities created by the influence of the free market, or land, or environmental issues.
But in 2012, I believe these movements started to merge together. You couldn’t just look at national identity issues or issues of democracy and not pay attention issues of class or developmentalism as well.
Photo credit: Kevin-WY/Flickr/CC
Brian Hioe: Back then, there were a lot of student groups. You participated with the 02 Society in Tainan, right?
Lin Fei-Fan: I began the 02 Society with some friends in 2008, at National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan. So I gradated National Chen Kung University in 2011. I entered NTU afterwards.
Brian Hioe: What were you doing at the time of 318?
Lin Fei-Fan: Before 318, we had a lot of discussion. Because the anti-CSSTA movement began in June 2013. Those few days before 318, we were discussing whether we should use some means to escalate the protest. The day before, or two days before, Lai Zhongxiang announced the 120 Hours To Protect Democracy activity.
But at the same time, we and Huang Kuo-Chang felt that if we just sat outside the entrance, that might not be as effective. So we discussed whether there were other means of protest. I, Huang Kuo-Chang, Zhou Fu-Yi, and some members of the Black Island Youth Front, were discussing how we could advance the activity.
The night before 318, after we finished discussing, I went back to Tainan and rounded up social movement groups in the south, including the 02 Society and social movement networks I was more familiar with, and asked them if they were willing to go to Taipei on 318. Because there was a rally on the night of 318, which was an activity that was certain to happen. Everyone was wondering how to relate this to the action we wanted to undertake. It was still a fluid situation. But I was doing that then.
Brian Hioe: After you charged in, how would explain what you did on a day-to-day basis? Within the Legislative Yuan. Maybe dealing with media, etc.
Lin Fei-Fan: Daily? Maybe some decision making meetings, In the beginning, decision making was very chaotic. Because we hadn’t thought about what the situation would be after we charged in. And nobody had really thought about successfully getting in. Internally, what kind of changes, and how would people participate from outside?
Nobody knew. So there wasn’t a lot that was planned beforehand, a lot was done on the go when we were inside. So when we got inside, the first thing was a simple division of labor. In the first few days, I acted more as a spokesman. When everybody reached a consensus on an issue or when we made an important consensus, it might be expressed through me or through Chen Wei-Ting. That was what I mainly did in the beginning.
Later on in the movement, it was more acting as a spokesman, that press releases might come from us. It was also hard to connect organizations. We had some ways to connect organizations, but it had to come through these people that were always working within the movement.
Brian Hioe: What about some of the big events in the movement? What are your personal reflections, three years later?
Lin Fei-Fan: You mean during the movement? It was a very large movement, whether we are speaking of one person or the collective participation of all of the participants. Nobody had experienced such a large experience.
So speaking as an individual, the shock was quite large. Regarding your own personal background and life experience, and life up to that point. [Laughs] I think it wasn’t just me, but many social movement participants. Their life up to that point and their views of the social and political structure of Taiwanese society. It slowly changed.
It was probably also a shock for most everyday people. Political participation wasn’t just voting in elections, like in the past. And it’s not watching the news or writing some commentary on the Internet. Through more direct means and taking action, you could make changes. So, personally, I think that this change was quite large. And this changed how many people look at politics.
Photo credit: Kevin-WY/Flickr/CC
Brian Hioe: Regarding events where you and Chen Wei-Ting were criticized, such as 324 or the decision to withdraw from the Legislative Yuan, what are your views?
Lin Fei-Fan: I think a great deal of these criticisms were not without merit, with regard to what was lacking in the decision making process. This includes the decision making body formed between NGOs and students. Everyday people, students, or NGOs who weren’t part of the decision making group could not participate in the decision making. There’s a point to this.
We weren’t able to establish a movement where all citizens could participate in the decision-making process. Such in every person having a single vote or making decisions as the occupation encampment as a whole.
This was partly technical in nature. This had advantages and disadvantages. We could use this channel to hold discussions with the government or to take action more quickly through the structure of the decision making group. But the shortcoming of this was that not everyone could participate. We emphasized democracy and participation by everybody, but we couldn’t practically achieve this, in terms of decision-making.
As for the criticisms of us individually, that it was a few people deciding everything, it wasn’t like that. Up to the movement becoming formalized and developing a structure, many things weren’t done by the two of us. We made these decisions collectively as a group. Of course, these decisions had to be expressed by us, because the media believed we were the representative figures of the movement. If it wasn’t one of us, less people might pay attention, or people would be unable to confirm whether this was a true announcement. Under these circumstances, we had to express decisions which we might have not agreed with ourselves, at times. So it’s not like it was just the two us.
Brian Hioe: It was created by the media?
Lin Fei-Fan: You can say it’s a very common misunderstanding. I think with regard to 323 and 324, you probably also know about Lin Chuankai and the investigation groups’ report on it. With the decisions made by everyone, what was announced publicly at the time, the report stated this very clearly.
I think social movement participants have gradually come to understand what the decisions made back then were and what was lacking. That it wasn’t a small group wanting seize power.
Nor was it the people in the Legislative Yuan wanting to cut themselves off from what happened at the Executive Yuan. There were a lot of issues that took place then with the communication mechanisms. But the average person might not know these things and mostly bases their assessments off of media reports.
Brian Hioe: When you participated in the Sunflower movement, or other Taiwanese social movements, how do you think that is related to Taiwanese identity?
Lin Fei-Fan: It has a connection to that. Of those who participated in 318, I believe all people—including those who criticized the mainstream of the movement such as the Untouchables’ Liberation Area—while many people may criticize them for saying that they don’t discuss issues related to Taiwan’s international status and only class issues—they also appeared on-site. So they definitely have still an internalized sense Taiwanese identity. I don’t that these people would suddenly say that they would come out and say that they support unification or the CSSTA.
There is a very direct effect in terms of Taiwanese identification and the rise of the movement. It’s an expression of Taiwanese identification, as a means of stemming Chinese attempts to influence Taiwan politically and economically.
Photo credit: Toomore Chiang/Flickr/CC
Brian Hioe: I think the most people opposed the black box, then people opposed the KMT and China, and the least opposed free trade. Do you think it was like that? I believe that some people that participated in the movement probably supported the KMT, for example.
Lin Fei-Fan: I believe this division between movement participants has three levels. The first is, like you said, opposition to the black box. This emphasis is placed on maintaining democratic process. The main reason that these people would stand up is because the bill was forced through in 30 seconds. They think that democracy is what is most important. I think this proportion was quite large, because of the emphasis on democracy.
But there also may be people with multiple senses of identity, so they decide to use the black box or democracy as a way to attract more of the people around them to support the issue or their participation. So I think many people opposed the black box.
Views towards China were also central. Many people may not have good feelings towards China. Whenever there is an issue related to China in the past few years, they may appear and participate. There were also a lot of people like that.
As for those critical of free trade or severely critical of free trade, they were definitely in the minority. I believe this is because people do not know very deeply what free trade is. And so they might be sensitive towards free trade with China, but less so towards applying to the TPP or other free trade deals.
Economically, Taiwan is always connected to China, maybe because of Ma Ying-Jeou’s economic policies or the KMT’s economic policies. This has a large influence. Or maybe this is emphasized in discourse.
As for what free trade is, or developmentalism, and the impact that brings, people do not know deeply about it. That’s why this situation appears in social movements.
Brian Hioe: How would explain Taiwanese social movements seeming to be more left-wing? More progressive. Regarding a number of issues, such as opposition to the death penalty or support of gay marriage. For example, nobody will really say that they are right-wing in social movement circles.
Lin Fei-Fan: I think relative to the DPP or conservative parties, social movements are comparatively left. But what left is in Taiwan hasn’t been widely discussed. It is a minority among progressive social movement participants that discusses this.
They may be more open and towards issues such as the opposition towards death penalty or gay marriage and concern themselves with issues regarding the environment or land. With all the various social movements, it’s formed a very stable network in terms of social movement participants. So their political views may be more radical comparatively or more progressive. It’s an attitude among these people.
Brian Hioe: What kind of influence do you think the movement has had, three years later? Concerning Taiwanese politics or identification. What most people raise is Ko P or Tsai Ing-Wen winning in elections or the emergence of the Third Force.
Lin Fei-Fan: I think elections are a very direct influence, like what you said regarding 2014 or 2016 elections. Same with the emergence of the Third Force.
My own feeling is that this change can’t be restricted to elections, including what I said before regarding political participation. For example, people may participate in events to discuss democracy. Or participating in talks was not very common for people before.
But evaluating different topics or participating in talks or discussions on progressive topics has become something that people won’t think is strange. I feel that this kind of concern is the most fundamental influence. The DPP has been in power for one year.
So what I worry about is that looking back, I feel that this period of time was a high point, but after elections, these things retreated. Different progressive issues or calls for reform existed but slowly people will feel that the DPP is in power now, and think that in the short-term, there’s no need to push for reform or take care of social issues. And everyone decides not to participate as enthusiastically in past years or, like 318, stand up to take a stand.
Photo credit: billy1125/Flickr/CC
Brian Hioe: What do you think social movement participants are doing now? I feel that there are less participants in social movement events now, such as for annual events as Gongsheng Music Festival. Do you think that this is because a lot of people have entered into the system? Or have people gone back to doing what they were doing before.
Lin Fei-Fan: I think there is some difficulty. As you mentioned, a lot of people have entered the system. A lot of friends, if they haven’t entered the DPP, they’ve entered the NPP, or the SDP-Greens Alliance. Whether running themselves or as legislative aides. Or they work within the political parties.
However, I believe a more crucial factor is that social movements haven’t found an effective means to respond to the DPP government. People we know have run for office, or entered politics.
But many of those who were involved in social movements or NGOs still continue to do what they had been doing before. What is critical now is that in confronting the DPP government, its very difficult to confront the DPP like we confronted the KMT in protesting on the streets.
After 318, people seem to feel that it’s not like in the past where street protests were means of resolving many social issues. The Sunflower Movement would let you feel that street protests and division had reached a high point.
But society is less enthusiastic about the same activities or large-scale activities as it was in the past. There’s been a rebound. Under these structural circumstances, a new government has also taken power. Everybody will feel that political issues have been taken care of for the time being.
For civil society or NGOs to confront this, or to use new means to engage in effective political change, may be what is hardest for civil society or NGOs currently. How to preserve momentum and at the same time adapt?
DPP supporters may feel that after 2016, political problems have been resolved. But how to move these people to action? That’s what is most difficult for NGOs and civil society groups now.
Brian Hioe: How do you think China looks at the political circumstances of Taiwan after the Sunflower Movement? Sometimes I feel it’s not the most clear. Obviously, they haven’t given up on winning over young people in Taiwan, but I don’t know what means they’ll employ.
Lin Fei-Fan: Hong Kong is confronting the enormous force of China. Oppression in Hong Kong is currently very strong. But this is not just towards Hong Kong, this is also limit exchanges between Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Obviously, they’re not too happy about the Sunflower Movement. But how to limit Taiwan social movements? I think they’re trying to overturn Taiwanese and Hong Kong social movements with the Lee Ming-Che case.
Photo credit: 綠魚/Flickr/CC
Intimidating these people for their actions in the past and letting them know where their risks are, and in that way forbidding exchanges with Hong Kong. Internationally, this limits your space.
They have no way to disrupt Taiwan’s social movements firsthand, for them but they have to use indirect means. Such as through the White Wolf. Or the Chinese Patriotic Alliance Association. Or the Chinese Unification Promotion Party, To provoke a response from Taiwanese social movements. Or to sit rip chaos.
Exchanges between Hong Kong and China already have encountered this difficulty. This was similar during pension reform protests. With large-scale protests, what actions will China take in the future? Will a counter-movement be an effective way to check a movement? That’s worth looking into.
But I believe China’s actions towards Taiwanese social movements have not been very effective in checking us so far. So my view is that what is key right now is moreso what strategy the social movements adopt towards the DPP.
Brian Hioe: Do you think there could be another social movement like the Sunflower Movement in taiwan?
Lin Fei-Fan: I think that’s quite hard to say. In 1990, after the Wild Lily movement ended, very few people would think that in 2014 there would occur the Sunflower Movement. It’s also hard to know what kind of events could provoke another movement on the scale of the occupation of the Legislative Yuan.
Brian Hioe: Lastly, do you think the Sunflower Movement can influence international social movements? Most people might talk about Hong Kong, but what about regarding Hong Kong as well as outside of Hong Kong.
Lin Fei-Fan: I believe there is a very large influence. On the one hand, it’s not only the connections between social movements in Hong Kong and social movements in Taiwan. In the past few years, in interacting with friends from southeast Asian and east Asian countries, many people are very interested in Taiwan’s social movements and they hope that they can learn from Taiwan’s experience.
I don’t think Taiwan’s experience can be directly applied in any and all cases, but they are very interested in Taiwan ranging from matters such as how Taiwan transitioned from authoritarianism to democracy, to what kind of organizational means or tools students in the Sunflower Movement used, including use of the Internet, what kind of tools they can use. Or how they can learn from things like open government and means of maintaining transparency in government.
They want to learn these things. And I feel that influence is quite large, particularly in southeast Asian and east Asian countries. For example, like in Thailand, or Myanmar, or Vietnam, or the Philippines. These students are very interested in Taiwanese social movements.
Photo credit: Abby Chen/Flickr/CC
This a way that Taiwan create another model. That it’s not just in terms of democratic development that we have something worth examining, but that in the establishment of civil society as well.
A lot of friends in southeast Asian and east Asian countries, as well as in Hong Kong, also want to know the process that led to the result of the ruling of the court to take civil disobedience into consideration in evaluating the action of Sunflower movement participants. They want to know what kind of legal theory was used in the legal defense when we faced charges and whether they could use in application to their own country’s protest movements as well. I feel that this influence is very large.