Interview: Lai Chung-chiang

Lai Chung-chiang is the convenor of the Economic Democracy Union and, more recently, the Taiwan Citizen Front. The following interview was conducted on April 24th, 2019.


Brian Hioe:  So the first thing I wanted to ask was, how did you begin participating in social movements?

Lai Chung-chiang:  The year I entered college was 1988. At that time, in 1988, I was preparing for university entrance exams. Chiang Ching-kuo died that year. Lee Teng-hui became president. And in 1988, the 520 Farmer’s Movement took place.

I could count myself as an observer of the 520 Farmer’s Movement. I went there to see. I saw that the police were very violent toward the people. That was my senior year of college, when I was preparing for university entrance exams. I couldn’t keep studying.

At the time, the Independence Evening Post was the only independent media which would criticize the government. It printed the images of the police stepping on the bloody people. We printed it and waited until morning. Before the guards got to school in the morning, I and a group of friends would run too all of the classrooms and stuff the newspapers we had printed into the classrooms.

That year, I entered National Taiwan University. You can imagine that after the Democratic Progressive Party formed in 1986, after the end of martial law in 1987, in 1988, Chiang Ching-kuo died. That led to the opening up of Taiwanese society, with different student groups forming in NTU forming. The Taiwan Study Club (台灣研究社), the Taiwanese Culture Club (台語文社), and also indigenous student groups.

With the opening up of society, the campus was, of course, even more open. You could say that half my time in college was spent in student groups and the rest was on the street protesting. In freshman year, I went to class like a good student.

But from sophomore year onward, I encountered many things. Including the student movement in March 1990. The Wild Lily Movement. The Anti-Military Peace March in May of that year. Up until 1991, with the call for National Assembly members to be removed and the constitution to be amended. The protest organized by the Taiwan Constitution Association. In 1991, the incident with the pro-independence reading group at NTU. Later, I became head of the student assembly. My college life was involved in all these social movements.

I decided to study law after I was close to done with my military service. I decided to start studying law myself. I probably don’t have to talk too much about what happened in Taiwan afterward, with the very large changes that occurred in Taiwanese society, with Chen Shui-bian elected as mayor of Taipei.

Lai Chung-chiang (center). Photo credit: 經濟民主連合/Facebook

I began to be a lawyer from 1997 onward. For a long period of time, I was just friends with these people in social movements. I didn’t actively put that much time in participating in these activities.

But when I returned to social movements, I was no longer a student. It was probably in 2008, with the Wild Strawberry Movement, when Chen Yunlin came to Taiwan. It was de facto martial law in Taipei. There was no announcement of martial law, but that’s what it was. From that time onward, I began to contact some friends, wondering how the country had become like this. Because during our days as students, we should have completed Taiwan’s democratization. How it could have gone back to this.

So I began to become invested in social movements again. Including some student movements, such as the Anti-Media Monopoly Movement. I would assist. I would go to give speeches. We began from the Taiwan Democracy Watch. For a while, I was head of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights. As for ECFA, when it was signed in 2010, we started the Cross-Straits Agreement Watch Association (兩岸協議監督聯盟), because we felt that Ma Ying-jeou doing this would cause issues and that civil society needed greater strength to counter-balance this.

Up until April 2013, that’s when we encountered the CSSTA. That’s when we started the Democratic Front Against the CSSTA.

Brian Hioe:  When did you begin the Economic Democracy Union?

Lai Chung-Chiang:  The Economic Democracy Union started from the Democratic Front Against the CSSTA, we changed names.

Brian Hioe:  I see.

What were you doing at the time of the CSSTA?

Lai Chung-Chiang:  As you know, a movement is a duration of time. The Sunflower Movement was just a point in the anti-CSSTA movement. Of course, it was a high point. But we can’t only look at opposing the CSSTA from the Sunflower Movement.

How should you understand 318? Most people will think of it in terms of what it advocated. Whether it opposed China, free trade, or the black box. Many people will begin from that. That’s because their views came from the media. At that point, all of the cameras on the nation were in the general assembly chamber of the Legislative Yuan. They were focused on what those in the general assembly chamber of the Legislative Yuan were saying.

But you should know that this isn’t how you should look at 318. 318 was just a point in opposing the CSSTA. The inside of the Legislative Yuan was just a part of the movement. In looking at the Sunflower Movement only from that, you won’t see the full truth.

Brian Hioe:  Why did you come to see this as an important issue and concern yourself with it? It’s also quite interesting how it suddenly became a big issue. I remember on the first day, it was probably 500 people and by the end, it was 500,000 people.

Lai Chung-Chiang:  I guess you could say why this movement became so big was because this issue of the CSSTA would influence many people. As I mentioned, in June of 2016, the CSSTA was signed. In the middle, there were hearing held. Of course, at the time, there was also media, primarily the Liberty Times, who reported on this to a large extent.

For us, it was a prolonged war. Through hearings, we would allow more people to participate. To allow more people to understand how the CSSTA could affect their lives. So you would see that the entire movement, that’s why in the end, 500,000 people would take to the streets.

It’s not that it would become like that. I believe that’s incorrect understanding. It influenced many people to begin with. But dissatisfaction was building up in society and up until the Chang Ching-chung incident, it was like a fire breaking out. How could it go from 317 to 330, with 500,000 taking to the streets of Taipei? That’s to say that the mobilization force of the people needed time to build up.

Brian Hioe:  This dissatisfaction toward the Ma government built up from 2008 too 2014, over the course of eight years, you could say.

Lai Chung-Chiang:  Yes, the CSSTA may have included dissatisfaction regarding media monopoly, or Chen Yunlin coming to Taiwan. But to be blunt, we knew that the CSSTA and economic integration would affect each industry in Taiwan. We needed to allow more people to know about this and our planning succeeded, in this respect.

Brian Hioe:  Would you say it had to do with the China factor? Or, say, free trade?

Lai Chung-Chiang:  Of course.

Brian Hioe:  It’s interesting for me, because it feels there was more talk of opposing free trade earlier on. Later on, there may have been more focus on the China factor.

Lai Chung-Chiang:  I don’t think it’s like that. In this movement, the China factor and opposing free trade are two sides of the same issue. Opposing the black box, that’s more with regards to strategy.

You can put it like this. If you start an anti-free trade movement in a Central or Latin American country, you wouldn’t say that you oppose free trade, but don’t oppose the American empire. Because America is the largest empire confront Central and Latin America.

If you’re in Taiwan and you are trying to push for a left-wing movement or anti-free trade movement, if you say that you oppose free trade and don’t oppose China imperialism, it’s something hard to believe. Because Taiwan’s historical specificity is that it needs to find the most suitable direction for its movement. If you are in Latin or Central America, you might have to arrive at home.

Let’s say if you start from the same values, such as caring for people, or for the right of the disprivileged to survive, and labor rights. You might arrive at different answers, because your enemy is different. The exploitation you face is different. It’s hard for me to understand seeing being opposed to China and being opposed to free trade as opposed.

Brian Hioe:  It’s interesting to me, because you could say that there were many anti-globalization movements in those years. Occupy Wall Street was a movement I participated in during college, for example.

Lai Chung-Chiang:  The largest wave of globalization in Taiwan was joining the WTO. Who were those who experienced harm first? First was, like I said, farmers. With the 520 Farmer’s Movement in 1988. Taiwan hadn’t joined the WTO then. But Taiwan had opened up its agricultural market to American products, leading to the rise of the farmer’s movement. When Taiwan joined the WTO, there was that influence then.

By this point, with regards to the wave of globalization that took place then, the largest influence on Taiwan was China. Many industries moved out of Taiwan to China during that wave of globalization. Many Chinese agricultural products were allowed to enter Taiwan then. So has the greatest harm to Taiwan from globalization come from America? Maybe part of it. But was it China? You can’t deny that either.

So seeing opposition to China and opposition to globalization as two matters, I don’t agree with this line of thought.

Brian Hioe:  To change directions a bit, how do you think the Sunflower Movement has influenced Taiwan? Many people will point to the rise of new political parties or NGOs, or etc. But you also see the decline of social movement groups, there no longer seem to be any student groups, for example. There are less protests as well.

Lai Chung-Chiang:  Maybe we can carry this out as more of a dialogue. How do you understand this movement? Do you think it was opposed to China, the black box, or the CSSTA? Or Ma Ying-jeou.

Brian Hioe:  I don’t think there’s any way to categorize it. But different people have different answers and I think everyone’s reasons for participating are different. If you ask those who came on 330, they would all give different answers.

I ask this to all of the people I interview because a lot of it is directed to the international world. Five years later, I think they still don’t know what this movement was about, what it was opposed to. So I try to collect a lot of answers.

Lai Chung-Chiang:  It’s like you said, everyone’s reasons for participating were different. There were those opposed to China. There were those opposed to free trade. Or those in industries who may have been affected by free trade. Another key reason is that many people were dissatisfied with this country.

It has a great deal to with the Rural Front. And Dapu. You remember that when Dapu happened, everyone had a slogan? Which was that “Today, the government takes apart Dapu. Tomorrow, we take apart the government”. When people were done shouting this, these young participants in the Rural Front were also thinking, “What? How do we take apart the government?” There were some people who just kept thinking about this. Wanting an action to express their dissatisfaction with the Ma government or violence by the nation-state. This tied together all of these elements, creating the Sunflower Movement.

I believe these were all present. But as to what the proportion of these was, everyone’s reasons for participating were different. If you had a drone that could fly up overhead and analyze everyone’s heads, many things could not be separated.

Photo credit: 台灣公民陣線/Facebook

Yet I have to emphasize, I don’t agree with the kind of criticism that the movement was opposed to free trade and only China or only China and not free trade or that this movement was only to have the Cross-Straits Oversight Bill or that this movement was just to oppose the black box.

Well, if you look at the CSSTA, who can represent the anti-CSSTA movement? I can definitely be one of those people. When the CSSTA was signed, at 4 PM that afternoon, I held the first press conference regarding how we, as an organization, would oppose the CSSTA. As an organization, we have some degree of representing opposition to this movement.

But if criticizing the movement as only opposed to the CSSTA, I think this is the wrong point of view. Or that this movement didn’t criticize free trade. I also think that this is the wrong point of view. If you say that this movement wasn’t opposed to China, this is also the wrong viewpoint.

As to what reason each participant participated in the movement, of course, everyone had a different viewpoint. Again, 318 was just one day. Before that, we fought for a year. After it ended, we had to fight against the notion of Free Economic Pilot Zones (FEPZs). If you opposed the CSSTA, of course you also had to be opposed to FEPZs.

After 318, after 410, it was us that continued to be opposed to the FEPZs pushed for by the KMT.

You also can’t focus on inside of the Legislative Yuan in describing this movement as a whole.

Brian Hioe:  You also have to look at the NGOs and the various groups outside. In my interviews, I try to represent all of these groups.

Five years later, what do you think has changed? I know that the Economic Democracy Union has done some fieldwork, for example, with Aman Wu. The Taiwan Citizen Movement was also formed, as a new platform.  I think it’s quite interesting that five years later, at the same time, the Cross-Strait Oversight Bill wasn’t passed.

It’s quite interesting to me, because every year I do these interviews, I get different answers. Before the election last year, people were optimistic. After the election, less so. I’m sure it would be like this if I continue.

Lai Chung-Chiang:  From 2008 to 2014, or even before 2008, when the DPP took power, China’s influence toward Taiwan has been increasing. And the KMT’s political orientation, as well as some economic policies of the DPP, have also been similar. Taiwan’s economic reliance on China, or economic integration between both sides, is becoming higher and higher in this period.

Has it become economically integrated to the point where we might see political unification next? If you look at in 2005 when Lien Chan of the KMT met with Hu Jintao and the blueprint they came up with in their talks, Ma Ying-jeou had been proceeding according to this blueprint. From economic integration, then you talk about military cooperation and a peace agreement.

If not for 318, if not for the anti-CSSTA movement, during the Ma administration, they likely could have accomplished a political agreement. Of course, this political agreement hasn’t jumped immediately to unification, but it might like the time between an engagement and a marriage. If they had signed a military cooperation under the One China Principle or a peace agreement, that means that the path toward unification is set. What would only be left is time.

Ma Ying-jeou hoped to sign a military cooperation agreement after signing the CSSTA. I’ve written about this before. On October 25, 2013, Ma Ying-jeou said he wanted to discuss a military cooperation agreement with China. And Ma stated that this would be under a One China framework.

318 cut off this path for further discussions. At the very least temporarily. Although Ma was able to have the Ma-Xi summit before the end of his term, at the very least, he wasn’t able to sign a peace agreement with China.

If not for 318, this could have been signed. So in looking at it today, even if the DPP was defeated in the last set of elections, and we can see that today, we confront a danger similar to the danger we confronted then, and we ask, does this movement have meaning? I still feel it has its meaning. At that point in time, it blocked Ma from further political negotiations with China during his administration. But it doesn’t represent this.

Because China wishes to annex Taiwan. This is in its constitution and in its Anti-Secession Law. This is its national consensus. It will continue pushing for this. So if you ask this way, I wouldn’t say that the Sunflower Movement was a failure, but it wasn’t successful enough. There’s no struggle which is the final struggle.

Brian Hioe:  What do you think needs to be done next, in this case? You raised the need for NGOs, small political parties, and organizations to cooperate in announcing the formation of the Taiwan Citizen Movement, for example.

Lai Chung-Chiang:  What did 318 change? It blocked China’s strategy to annex Taiwan through political discussions. At the time. At the very least, it managed to do that for the time being. On the other hand, if there was not 318, the CSSTA would have passed and have been put into effect. If it had passed, Taiwan economy would have become even more reliant on China. It would become even closer to China.

But the CSSTA was not put into effect. Yet China’s influence is still present. Because China’s influence can affect Taiwan and it doesn’t only need go through the CSSTA. The CSSTA is simply a side of this. It could come into Taiwan by using a false identity, for example.

Before the CSSTA was passed, Ma Ying-jeou opened up Taiwan to Chinese capital in 2009. Without the CSSTA or with the CSSTA, this was simply another item in allowing Chinese capital into Taiwan. From this point of view, 318 was just a social movement. It blocked the CSSTA at that point in time.

But after the Tsai administration took power, it did not genuinely push Taiwan toward a path for economic development different from that of the Ma administration. At the same time, the Tsai government hasn’t tried to review the Ma administration’s allowing Chinese capital into Taiwan. The problem continues to be present.

From this point of view, what can we see as the role played by the Sunflower Movement, then? The first is, as I mentioned, it blocked political discussions. This was why we held a press conference on Monday, drawing a red line on political discussions between Taiwan and China. This is very important. During the Sunflower Movement, we said that Ma Ying-jeou would sell off Taiwan. Now is it that Han Kuo-yu will sell off Taiwan? Or Terry Gou?

Regarding selling off Taiwan, what we mean by that is signing a military cooperation agreement with China or signing a peace treaty with China under the basis of a One China Principle or with the agreement that Taiwan will unify with China. If so, Taiwan will lose its autonomy internationally. Taiwan will become like Hong Kong. It won’t happen right away, but it won’t gradually become like Hong Kong, and it will become like a part of China. If it signs a peace agreement or a military cooperation agreement under the One China  Principle, with an end to hostilities.

So politically, 318 drew a red line in terms of political agreements. But economically, the 318 movement was able to block the CSSTA, but a social movement in itself is unable to address some things. You still need a need economic path, but despite the opportunities that history has given Taiwan, the Tsai administration hasn’t taken this up.

Because of this, we would see the rise of a Han Kuo-yu. Many people will think that what he says is right, that Taiwan’s economy has not improved. They will think that Han Kuo-yu saying that relations need to be changed with China, with “Goods going out, money coming in,” can allow everyone to make money.

Regarding Chinese capital, we were calling for legislation to regulate Chinese capital, but the government hasn’t done this in the past few years. Ma Ying-jeou in 2009 used executive power to allow China to enter. These related rules, during the Tsai administration’s period in power, it hasn’t made any changes.

The third aspect of the Sunflower Movement may be that everyone saw a new political power arise in Taiwanese society then. That new political power became young people strongly willing  to express themselves politically in 2014, with the slogan that “If the KMT doesn’t collapse, Taiwan won’t improve.” That led to the KMT’s defeat in that year, as well as the rise of Ko Wen-je, a political newcomer. This allowed for the so-called White Force.

Photo credit: 經濟民主連合

This force may have expressed some dissatisfaction that year. Yet it did not concretely form into a political path outside of dissatisfaction, without any political demands. Different politicians could claim that they represent this force. Including Ko Wen-je. Or Han Kuo-yu even, to some extent. This may reflect where this movement was lacking or where it failed.

Because of the Sunflower Movement, many people who didn’t care about politics began to care about politics. They would begin to be involved in politics. This was originally a good thing. But this force hasn’t very clearly become a concrete political aim, demand, or direction. As a result, this has led to manipulative politicians being able to influence this, or very easily claim that they represent this force.

Brian Hioe:  Is there anything you want to say in closing to readers? Not only Taiwanese but also international.

Lai Chung-Chiang:  The situation Taiwan confronts today and the situation we confronted before 318 is very similar. It’s very dangerous. The Chinese government wishes to use its proxies in Taiwan and the media it’s able to influence, the different elements of society it is able to influence, to control Taiwanese politics and Taiwan’s economy. This is what we confront. And the situation in some respects is worse than it was that year.