Interview: Wu Pei-yi
Wu Pei-yi is currently a city councilor for the Democratic Progressive Party in Taipei’s Zhongzheng and Wanhua districts. The following interview was conducted on April 8th, 2019.
Brian Hioe: The first question I wanted to ask is, how did you begin participating in Taiwanese social movements? What movements did you participate in and why?
Wu Pei-yi: In the beginning, when I studied at National Taiwan University (NTU), that was from 2005 to 2009. When I entered college, there were some student groups in Taiwan, such as the NTU Mainland Club, as well as Radical Notes, the Dalawasao Club, and so forth. When I was in high school and I took college entrance examinations, I applied for the politics department.
But I didn’t understand politics too much at the time. I just felt that Taiwan’s situation internationally was quite bad. I didn’t really understand why then either, but I just felt that our country was very different from other countries. The issues that we confronted were very particular. Rather naively, I just thought that if I did some kind of work related to international relations, that might be able to help Taiwan.
When I got to college, I found that this wasn’t something that working in international relations could help address. It was more complex and had to do with internal politics, past colonization, the authoritarianism of the KMT, and our international situation was an unresolved issue that could be traced back to history. So I felt that the things I learned in the politics department weren’t very helpful. It was all political theory. And there was very little research into Taiwan’s history.
Photo credit: 吳沛憶/Facebook
I knew that there were some student groups in college that often organized reading groups or talks. I went to each one and listened. But I didn’t get to know any upperclassmen. Later on, I encountered the NTU Dalawasao Club. That was when the club had just been re-established. The club hadn’t existed for ten years or so before that. The Dalawasao Club was focused on the rural movement, regarding the 520 rural movement. It was formed then but later collapsed.
When I entered, the upperclassmen who had reestablished the club was in 2005, when China passed the Anti-Secession Law. There was a protest outside of NTU then, a sit-in. They had gotten to know each other then and later on, they felt that they could work on a student group later, that was more concerned with Taiwanese local identity and local politics.
I went to listen to their talk and I felt that this was what I was interested in. I also felt that if we were hoping to find an answer to these issues, we had to understand what had happened in history. Some student groups might read some theory because of that, like political philosophy. But I felt I was interested in Taiwanese history and local politics. I began participating in that reading and in the club. Helping to organize talks and etc.
At the time, that when in New Taipei City, the Losheng Sanatorium Protests began. Later on, there began to be organizing between different student groups for a large-scale protest. So as a member of a student group, along with other student groups from other schools, we would meet together and plan the 415 protests. That was the first time I protested on the streets and participated in a more organized event.
Because the student groups are all quite small, between five to ten people, everyone would know about different student groups holding events. So I participated in many small-scale protests. It was most often the NTU University News group which organized such activities. They opposed evictions and so forth.
It left a deep impression on me. The first time that I was dragged away by police was outside of the Executive Yuan. But at the time, there were very few people. There were only a few dozen people. It was mostly just sitting down fifteen minutes to half an hour and then the police would drag us away! [Laughs]
The first time I was arrested, I was quite scared, since I was someone who wouldn’t even cross the street during a red light. I was someone who listened to the rules. But later on, because there were so many of these small-scale protests, I got used to it. Because that was when Chen Shui-bian was in power, so at the time, there were very few people concerned with social movements. This was quite marginal.
So we’d help out for many small protest activities. I participated in many people at that time. And I got to know many other people, both on-campus and from other schools. Later on, in terms of activities that we started ourselves, or which left a deeper impression, that was the Wild Strawberry Movement. I imagine that many people you have interviewed have brought this up. It was also something you saw on the news then, that the police were hitting people, and it would be so violent.
It was quite surprising since we had never seen this before. It felt like something that would have only taken place twenty years ago. Later on, with some upperclassmen and some professors on campus, such as Lee Ming-chong, we called for a sit-in on PTT. And the Wild Strawberry Movement took place.
I participated very heavily then. I was always in Liberty Plaza. I also participated in the general assemblies, the media group, and etc. But while I had originally felt that during college I had grown and learned a lot, that I basically understood Taiwanese history and the theories I needed to learn, I had already learned. However, my experience during the Wild Strawberry Movement made me feel that in confronting actual politics, I hadn’t really considered things. What I felt was a sense of helplessness.
By the time we were sitting there in the end, no politician would respond to you. The media wasn’t paying attention either. But we didn’t know how to set our agenda in motion either, to set forth our own agenda and action. So I felt I wanted to learn more, to be quiet for a time. As a result, I went to National Tsing Hua University to study. I wanted to quietly work on my thesis. I wrote about the Anti-Kuokuang Movement, where the protests took place and the experience of the fishers in these protests.
I went and lived for half a year in Changhua, investigating the circumstances. It was more from an anthropological perspective. I didn’t want to concern myself with anything else.
But when I entered Tsing Hua, that was also when Chen Wei-ting became a college student. They began organizing their student group. It was pretty irritating. [Laughs] They came and found us graduate students and wanted us to lead their reading groups. I originally didn’t want to do this, I didn’t want to concern myself with these things.
That was up until the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement. That was when different schools starting linking up together again. I began participating again at Tsing Hua. We connected many different student groups. I worked with my classmates and with college students.
I got to know people like Chen Wei-ting or others then, who are younger than me by five or six years. I’m older than the Sunflower Movement generation by five or six years. It was through the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement that I got to know them, these people who were more active in participating in social movements in college.
Everyone kept in contact. We started organizing a lot of events again. Everyone knew each other then.
After I graduated, I went to the Thinking Taiwan Foundation to work. The reason why I entered the Thinking Taiwan Foundation was because in college, I attended in an activity organized by the Nylon Cheng Liberty Foundation, as a volunteer. They’re always lacking in manpower, so they are always looking for college students to go work there for free.
I came to know Yang Chang-zheng, who was involved in Tibetan solidarity efforts. They asked me to go there and help out. Originally, I didn’t know anyone in the DPP.
I worked for maybe half a year. And that’s when the CSSTA became an issue.
I took two weeks off. I had no contact with the Thinking Taiwan Foundation. They didn’t know what I was doing. In the beginning, I didn’t participate in their discussions beforehand. But the first night, during the sit-in, I was around that street Wei Yang was in charge of.
Brian Hioe: Was it Zhenjiang Street?
Wu Pei-yi: Or was it Jinan Road? It might have been Jinan. The first night. On the night of 318.
Brian Hioe: I was there too.
Wu Pei-yi: They had a plan themselves, but nobody else there knew. When they saw people they knew, they pulled us and told us that there was this plan, and what we should do after. When they asked us to, they would have us climb over the fence into the legislature.
It was because everyone had participated in so many activities before. Everyone had a sense of connection. Even if there wasn’t any formally organized discussion beforehand, on-site there was eight, nine, or ten people that began to organize there. After we got in, it was like that.
Brian Hioe: What did you do during the course of the movement itself?
Wu Pei-yi: I stayed inside until the third day, then I went outside. At the time, some of us, like Huang Shou-da, left. We knew each other better. We left because we all saw on Facebook that there seemed to be a lot of people outside. Over 10,000. But we were thinking that there needed to be organizational work on the outside. We knew that if this movement was to last, that it wasn’t to be very brief, then there needed to be organizational work.
Photo credit: 吳沛憶/Facebook
So we went outside. I might not remember all the details at this point, but I later ended up at the Department of Social Sciences. At the Department of Social Sciences, I was primarily responsible for media and press releases.
Brian Hioe: I was also there at the Department of Social Sciences. On 324, I was part of the back door team, I actually.
Looking back, how do you reflect on major events of the movement, such as 324 or 330, with 500,000 people taking Ketagalan Boulevard.
Wu Pei-yi: I think the Sunflower Movement, including the 318 occupation of the Legislative Yuan, the 324 occupation of the Executive Yuan, and 330, these large-scale protests, allowed me to see the mobilization present in society. Society had this kind of sentiment that had to be expressed, this dissatisfaction. Organizers may have been those that moved first, to push those people who had similar feelings of dissatisfaction as themselves, to participate in this movement. This was what the movement was doing.
The Sunflower Movement included various possibilities. Many things had been tried, such as occupying the highest branch of administrative government in Taiwan. This was tried. But for this decision-making process, they always had more choices.
For there to be such an ability to mobilize in society, in such a short period of time, this was through the media and the Internet. On the one hand, you can see the bottom line of the movement. After the movement, I began to reflect more deeply on the relationship between social movements and politics. For me in the past, I felt that I had to participate in politics. It would be very hard for me to just watch, despite having many thoughts about it. I thought that any means was fine, so long as I participated in politics. Doing what I could to achieve some changes.
In an NGO, I could at least be working. I thought I might go work in an NGO or work as an academic researcher, or something like that. For me, that was all politics. I didn’t think about it too much. I didn’t decide what I should do. But after the movement, I had a strong feeling that we’re always waiting until the situation is bad, then using a lot of energy to try and move society. To put the brakes on something.
Why should we leave that space to them? If we’re going to occupy, why are we really going to occupy there? What we need to occupy is political power. So after the movement, we might have many things we are uncertain about or don’t understand, and may have many doubts, but I felt that I had to do this work. As such, after the movement, I was wondering whether I should stay in the Thinking Taiwan Foundation to keep working. Since after the movement, we felt–I wouldn’t say disappointed, since we knew that the DPP had done its best, in its own way. But you would also feel that our largest opposition party could only do this much. It still needed everyone to stand up. You’d wonder, is this party useful for anything? What had happened?
My family has always been DPP supporters. Since there was no way for us to support the KMT and there were no other choices. But at the time, I also felt doubtful about the DPP. I wondered if I should leave this place and maybe go to an NGO and work. If I stayed in the Thinking Taiwan Foundation, I felt that I should find some way to enter the DPP.
The Thinking Taiwan Foundation is a bit more remote and doesn’t directly participate in the DPP’s work. I decided to join the DPP. I joined in May of that year when Tsai decided to go back as the DPP’s chair. I think those things are related. I didn’t think that she would run for chair at the time, so that may have contributed to my decision to join the DPP.
It might have been my fate to eventually join the DPP, but I just didn’t know then. The movement may have sped this process up. I was actually still preparing the TOEFL then, thinking about maybe coming back after getting a Ph. D, and then deciding what I should do. But this sped up. It may have also been a sense of urgency. The Sunflower Movement was the largest student movement I had participated in.
In college, we were always saying that the Wild Lily Movement was long past, that this wouldn’t happen again. Then during our age, we saw another large-scale movement. Because we had seen this, we would feel an even stronger sense of urgency. Before the appearance of the movement, you would say that this era isn’t like past eras, that there weren’t so many young people concerned with politics. But after so many people stood up and the results were still like this, you would feel, are there any other ways?
Brian Hioe: How did you feel after deciding to run for office in that way, then?
Wu Pei-yi: There was still some distance until I decided to run for office. I decided to just work as a grassroots worker then. I never imagined that I would run for office then. I don’t like to be in the spotlight. During movements, I would usually work on administrative or media-related tasks.
I’m not usually the one with the microphone. I’m not the kind of person who is a leader in the front. We always believe that this is the kind of person who runs for office. I didn’t think that it would be me running for office. So the first thing I worked on as part of the DPP was the Democracy Classroom. That’s a DPP training program.
Photo credit: 吳沛憶/Facebook
It was originally a small program, but when Tsai Ing-wen ran for office, she had several proposals. One was young people running for office and opening up the DPP to young people. Yang Chang-zheng was above me, we entered the DPP at the same time. They said that we had to work on this, but we would have to come up with our own ways to address this.
So I proposed “Democracy Grassroots” (民主小草), as a plan. That plan was us finding one hundred young people through the Internet and 45 of them running for lizhang. We helped them with their elections. I think that plan allowed me to win some faith from DPP party workers. Because when I first entered the DPP, it was a strange situation. The party headquarters tends to be a bit remote. And we were new people.
I was the assistant director. But the people I was in charge of were generally older than 40 or 50. They were there from the Chen Shui-Bian era. So they’d be like, “Who are you?” Working there in the beginning, this was quite tiring. They would wonder what you knew exactly, since you had no experience in elections. After that, I was accepted more internally and the things I could do became more diverse. New proposals.
After 2014 nine-in-one elections, I was sent to the Department of Outreach. I was responsible for news and outreach activities. We started to prepare for Tsai’s election in 2016. I began to work in the Media Creative Center of her office. This was a new organization, though it was later shut down after elections. [Laughs] I was responsible for images and outreach and things like that.
So I continued to think that I was just someone who would in an office to help out with elections. I didn’t think I would run for office myself.
After elections, I was sent back to the party headquarters. I was prompted to head of the Democracy Classroom. Same as before, I kept up work in the party.
When I became spokesperson, I originally didn’t want to do this. I didn’t think I would become a public figure. To tell you the truth, I was still preparing for the TOEFL at the time! [Laughs] I was thinking that I would go abroad to study. Because I felt that with the DPP in power, there wasn’t as much I could do. Although I was very close to this core group, I knew that my specialty wasn’t anything regarding any particular policy. What I could help out with was the Internet, organizing groups, and etc.
But I had studied politics. I was truly concerned with politics in and of itself. But when it came to elections, we would do our best to help out, but election activities and politics and political administration are still substantively different from each other. I really wanted to focus on politics, but at the time, I knew that I didn’t have the specialized abilities to take on this kind of work. So I thought that I should maybe go and educate myself some more. To research a specific political field or political topic.
I was still thinking about that, but I had a strong sense of powerlessness. We had taken power, but many problems or the responses we got from society, or even opposition, I didn’t know how to respond. Sometimes I wouldn’t understand how certain decisions were made or arrived at. But as a DPP party worker, people would suppose that I could deal with this.
Later on, I agreed to be spokesperson. That was only part-time. But the media will focus on you, particularly as a young woman. We had seven spokespersons and I only did this one day a week. It was not too deep a role, but people will focus on this. People got to know me that way. People wouldn’t really know that I had a lot of work every day in the party headquarters and that spokesperson was just a part-time role, part of my other work.
Yet at the time, I started to think–why was it that I was so opposed to running for office or being a public figure? I started to consider this possibility. But I wasn’t willing to become a public figure, who would have to give up their private life. Since I think that once you run for office, that’s for life. It’s very hard to go back. So I didn’t want to do that.
But once you become a spokesperson, you have to give up a great deal of your private life. You have to be very careful. I began to be nervous whenever I was outside. [Laughs] Even if you’re not so recognizable, that people wouldn’t really recognize you. However, you would worry if, once you’re a spokesperson for the DPP, you might end up hurting this organization as a whole. Your life as a whole changes.
I began to think, well, seeing as there’s a part of my life which I’ve already given up, why shouldn’t I run for office? I began to think, that to address this sense of powerlessness, maybe what I should do is to come out and confront society. That participating in elections was like that.
When we say something to our elders that something wasn’t that way, that young people are like that, they would say that it wasn’t that way. That was why we didn’t understand the grassroots because the people we had contact with was just a small group of young people. That mainstream young people and people of other generations thought very differently. I often got that response.
But I wasn’t convinced. Because although young people may not be a majority, they are the next generation. So their views should be taken note of.
I thought I could perhaps come out myself and confront the challenges of public opinion. And time passed quickly. Around when I needed to decide, I didn’t have too much time to think. It was an impulse. And so I decided to run for office. Some friends, such as Shou-da or Wei-shan, also came to similar decisions. It didn’t seem so frightening. We could discuss this together.
Photo credit: 吳沛憶/Facebook
Brian Hioe: Do you feel that there have been any changes, from going from outside the system to being within it? In terms of what you do, or etc. Because it’s quite interesting that after the Sunflower Movement, young people began to run for office.
Wu Pei-yi: In the past, I would have a sense of conflict. That people outside the system felt that being within the system was useless. So that’s why they would be outside the system. That’s why many people like to claim that they will always be opposition, that they will always remain outside the system.
But those who have entered. Once they have entered into a specialized administrative organ or organization, they will often feel that those outside the system don’t understand what the core issues are, that they are just doing crazy things and that they don’t understand the circumstances. That there are complex reasons as to why something is why it is.
There’s this sort of debate as to which one is more useful, which one is more effective. There are also those who go from outside the system to within it, who want to tell those outside the system that they need to go inside, that only this is effective.
I don’t feel like I’m that. For politics, there needs to be those inside the system and those outside it. This debate can be traced back to what Wu Jieh-min wrote in describing the 1990s after the DPP took power, this led to the collapse of Taiwanese civil society because of the absorption and co-optation of civil society by the DPP.
I’ve always opposed this point of view. I’ve discussed this with him as well. I don’t think there’s co-optation. There’s a need for political parties, just as there is a need for civil society. But I just think that Taiwanese civil society, in the past ten years, was not strong enough, whether in terms of manpower, organization, or planning. When some elements of civil society entered into government, then it seemed like civil society was hollowed out. That’s just a sign that it wasn’t sufficiently strong, however.
Both sides should be able to interact. There should be mobility between them. Every society is like that. Both sides are not fixed. And I think this movement is a positive thing. Because you can stand in different positions. But I think that for a healthy politics, both sides need to be large and strong enough. Sometimes those within the system need voices from without the system. There are many ways of interacting. If we only have a professionalized bureaucratic system on the inside, then there’s also no way to achieve a healthy politics, I believe.
If all of those are outside the system and we leave work within the system only to those who are professionalized bureaucrats, then there would also be large issues. I believe that both sides are very important and that they play their different roles.
Brian Hioe: I think it’s quite interesting that you were elected at this point in time, since the KMT seems to be resurgent, and conservative social forces seem stronger and stronger. However, some young city councilors were elected this time, whether DPP or NPP. Five years after the Sunflower Movement, how do you think this reflects change in Taiwanese society?
Wu Pei-yi: I feel that in terms of the entire political organization and structure, conservative forces are still on the decline. Even through elections, with the changes in elected representatives, including with the victories of the NPP and young people in the DPP winning seats, in terms of organization, Taiwanese democracy is still moving forward. The system is still moving in the direction of social progress.
While I may be DPP, I agree strongly with the need for a third party, because our original aim was to make the KMT into a minority party, and Taiwan needing two other major parties. So you have to give small parties spaces to operate and opportunities.
Before the Sunflower Movement, we may have already thought that this was possible. When we were in college, Jou Yi-cheng and others tried to form a Third Society Party, but this failed, because there was no strength for that in society. The KMT was still too powerful and it was able to divide support toward the DPP.
But during the Sunflower Movement, that strength was powerful enough. And I believe that after that, you can see that Taiwanese society is still moving in the direction of social progress. Such as discussion of gay marriage or the death penalty, even if these are still blocked in many respects, it would be hard to imagine this kind of social progress toward a more pluralized society ten years ago. At the very least, the consensus which exists among our generation is very high. There’s no need to discuss this.
Yet I believe that what we confront now is not the return of the KMT in Taiwan, yet the power of China. What we confront is China, which has strengthened its political power greatly in the last ten years. Xi Jinping’s political will to annex Taiwan has also only increased. They have the political will and the resources. This is what we confront, as having begun from China.
And domestically, with the KMT, or those conservative social forces, are in movement as a result of this force from China. The media environment now was also something that we believed would get better and better.
But I believe that the media environment is worse than it was ten years ago. You would also know that one channel was more blue and another more green, but you would never think that it would become to this extent, such as with Chungtien now. There was no way to do news that way. So I think the media environment has gotten worse.
Photo credit: 吳沛憶/Facebook
Though we may not be fully aware of it, I believe that has to do with the China factor and Chinese influence. I believe that what we confront now is China’s threat to Taiwanese democracy. And they know now how to affect Taiwanese politics and political discourse in order to influence our government. We confront these forces that we may not know how to confront currently.
We’ve spent twenty years learning how to check and balance the KMT, but we confront a new force now, and we haven’t found a way to counter-balance this.
Brian Hioe: Is there anything you would like to say in closing to readers? Not only Taiwanese readers, but also international ones.
Wu Pei-yi: Like I said, Taiwan is a country with an unfortunate fate. [Laughs] History has left Taiwan a very difficult task. Most countries may have addressed issues of sovereignty after World War II, but up to now, Taiwan is still working on this. And what is even more unfortunate is that we confront this monster of this historical era, China. We live next to a large monster, the most terrifying monster of this era.
America and the European Union may realize this now, but we have the least amount of ability to protect our democracy. So we need any sort of form of support. This is not only regarding Taiwan. A group of people on this island are confronting this force to oppress freedom and democracy. This group of people deserves your support.