(This is a solicited guest post by University of Chicago’s Eric Hundman, who is currently conducting fieldwork in Taiwan. Also follow him on Twitter.)
At around 7:30pm on Tuesday, March 18, around 300 protesters scaled the fence around Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s equivalent of a parliament) and occupied the building. The protesters then barricaded themselves inside the legislative chamber and began organizing, with the help of opposition legislators and the acquiescence of “patient, though confused police.” The executive branch in Taiwan probably* does not* have the authority to send police inside the legislature, so when Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) refused President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) request to evict the occupiers, they gained a certain measure of security.
By the following day, the protest leadership had elaborated its demands, while the streets outside the building had filled with sympathetic protesters, advocacy groups, volunteer staff, academics leading discussions, and stages for speeches and musical performances. This core protest organization developed very quickly and persisted – despite the trials of March 24, when riot police used force to decisively end an attempt to occupy the Executive Yuan, and even after April 2, when notorious “former” gangster Chang An-le (張安樂) raised a counter-protest. What became the “Sunflower Movement” organization also led a massive rally last Sunday, March 30 outside the Presidential Palace that drew close to 500,000 people; the coordination of this event was so thorough that by two hours after the rally ended, the streets were entirely clear of both people and detritus. The protest continues today, though the leadership has just announced they will leave the Legislative Yuan on Thursday, April 10.
To many, the spark motivating this protest was oddly obscure. On July 3, 2013, Taiwan and China signed the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which would, for example, allow greater Chinese investment in Taiwan’s banking and telecom sectors. After working its way though a series of widely criticized consultations, on March 17 the chair of the relevant review committee, in violation of an agreement with opposition lawmakers, announced the CSSTA had cleared committee (timeline here*). This amounted to legislative approval of the bill, since the ruling KMT party has enough votes to pass it. The protesters moved to block passage, and demanded that a new oversight structure be put in place governing agreements with China. They also demanded that the CSSTA bill be carefully reviewed after implementation of oversight.
These events raise a host of fascinating puzzles, but I will limit my discussion here to two that draw on the social movements literature. First, how did anger at an ostensibly minor procedural violation explode into what some continue to call a “constitutional crisis”? Second, what are the likely outcomes of the protest?
Charles Tilly’s (2002, 2005, 2008) explanatory framework still applies remarkably well here. Tilly argues that modern protesters’ “repertoire of contention” is marked by the application of modular performances to moral persuasion. More specifically, to have much chance of effectiveness, protesters must persuade the public (and government) that they are what Tilly referred to as WUNC: worthy, unified, numerous, and committed.
The Taiwanese protesters quickly demonstrated that they were numerous: within days, even skeptical news outlets were acknowledging that thousands of people were protesting daily. Occasionally those numbers were still brushed off as inconsequential, but the roughly 500,000 who marched on the government last weekend decisively ended such talk. The protesters have also demonstrated commitment: hundreds to thousands have been sleeping on cardboard beds on the street each night; thousands peacefully resisted the occasionally violent attempts by riot police to remove them from the Executive Yuan; and the protest leadership has continually occupied the Legislative Yuan (at times without air conditioning) for almost three weeks. The protesters have also been remarkably unified: despite rumors that a split between moderates and radicals led to the attempt to occupy the Executive Yuan, there were no major public disagreements until today’s announcement by the protest leadership that they will leave the legislative chamber later this week.
The worthiness criterion often hinges on a lack of violence, and despite portrayals of the protesters as violent, lawbreaking hooligans (once even as terrorists), their tactics have been almost entirely peaceful. Worthiness also, though, implicates the movement’s goals and symbolism. The simplest way to illuminate how judgment of these factors is playing out is to examine the dominant narratives over the past few weeks.
Early in the course of the protest, the rallying cry (and Twitter hashtag) was simply “Oppose the Services Trade Agreement!” (反服貿), with the government responding bluntly that the agreement would pass no matter what the protesters did. However, the narratives of contestation in this protest, never so narrow as either side initially portrayed, soon coalesced around three more fundamental issues: the rule of law, democracy, and fear of China.
The KMT-led government has largely clung to a narrow definition of legality: Ma and party legislators argue that the pact was legally signed and submitted to the necessary consultations and review, so they need not and will not concede. This also became the KMT’s basis for criticizing the protesters’ actions as unlawful and obstructive.
Strictly speaking, this criticism is true. Some of the protesters’ actions – certainly the occupation of the legislature and executive buildings – were likely illegal. However, the protesters counter this rhetoric in two ways. First, they argue that the agreement was negotiated in secret without legislative oversight, and thus it is fundamentally undemocratic – the image of a “black box” (黑箱) has been central to the protests. Given the youth of Taiwan’s democracy and the pride Taiwanese take in it, this point resonates strongly. Second, they point out that many have been demanding more review of this agreement for almost a year, to no avail. They therefore argue that Taiwan’s rule of law has failed them and that their actions have been a last resort to force the government to respond to the concerns of what some polls indicate to be a majority of Taiwanese. An argument that the government ignores civil society has been prevalent for years now, so few who were not prior supporters of the KMT appear to buy the government’s arguments (Ma’s approval rating had dipped as low as 9% before this crisis began). The protesters largely appeared to prevail in this particular rhetorical battle over the “worthiness” of their actions.
Moreover, the protesters have had another, even stronger narrative from which to draw: that of the threat China poses to Taiwan. The arguments here are manifold and have continued to multiply. They include the possibility that Chinese managers will start censoring Taiwanese media, the worry that Taiwanese farmers will suffer, the fear that economic domination will lead to a loss of autonomy and turn Taiwan into the next Hong Kong, and – bringing the protesters’ narrative full circle – that Chinese influence will cause Taiwan to lose its cherished democracy. The KMT government responds by arguing that this pact is just about economics – an absurd claim about any agreement with China and one that is particularly tone-deaf in the Taiwanese context. Given the still-strong opposition against unification with China here and the broad support for the protesters, it is not hard to understand why the KMT argument isn’t sticking. To date, therefore, the Sunflower Movement appears to have satisfied Tilly’s “worthiness” criterion.
All this might lead one to think the KMT, and especially Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) himself, would be starting to yield. However, this is one major outstanding puzzle: Ma and the vast majority of KMT legislators have not budged on the CSSTA. At all. While willing to enact an oversight mechanism and continue reviewing the CSSTA, even Speaker Wang Jin-pyng’s (王金平) defection on April 6 to offer a compromise to the students did not spur the rest of his party to consider enacting new oversight before again reviewing the CSSTA, as the students have been demanding. Instead, the rest of the party was “shocked” and angrily rejected his proposal.
This brings me to the second question I posed above: what are the likely outcomes of this protest? In the short term, a new oversight framework looks likely and the CSSTA also looks likely to be significantly delayed, at the least (though calls for renegotiation persist). Casting further ahead, though, Doug McAdam and Sidney Tarrow also offer a framework for thinking about how the Sunflower Movement will affect Taiwan’s “seven-in-one” elections at the end of the year and the next presidential election in 2016. McAdam and Tarrow posit several mechanisms through which social movements can influence political actors in electoral campaigns. In this case, the most relevant are (1) joining an electoral movement or becoming a party; (2) engaging in proactive electoral mobilization; and (3) polarizing political parties internally. On these points, I quote Dafydd Fell of the Taiwan Studies Centre at the School of Oriental and African Studies:
“…the effect of the current demonstrations on party politics [seems uncertain]. The DPP [Democratic Progressive Party – Taiwan’s opposition] has struggled to find a role as social movements remain suspicious of it and it has tended to be on the sidelines of most of the post 2008 protests. If some kind of party is established out of these protests it is unlikely to be able to make a breakthrough in Taiwan’s electoral system… It is quite likely that some KMT politicians will try to appeal to voters by keeping a distance from Ma. This is particularly likely to be significant if Ma has a clear preferred nominee for presidential succession. It appears that some leading KMT politicians are taking a cautious position on the student protests, waiting to see how the events develop and how public opinion swings.”
The protesters have already leveraged splits within the KMT, as highlighted by Wang Jin-pyng’s (王金平) initial refusal to remove them and his unusual defection from the party line on the morning of April 6 to promise that an oversight agreement would be passed before review of the CSSTA resumes. As Fell notes, though, it remains unclear whether the movement will have any lasting effect on the KMT’s electoral prospects, especially given that the DPP has not yet provided convincing alternatives. However, as long as the Ma administration remains totally intransigent, damage to the KMT’s reputation continues to accumulate and a consequential shift in framing seems ever more likely. Much will also depend on the administration’s response to the departure of the students on Thursday. Will they be arrested or left free? How will the pending lawsuits against them proceed? Will the street protests continue after the occupation ends?
The answers to these questions will not be forthcoming for at least a few days. Nonetheless, it is already clear that an initially small group of protesters managed to tap into a vast reservoir of discontent with the KMT and the Ma administration in order to peacefully mobilize an enormous number of people in support of greater transparency and democratization in one of the world’s youngest democracies. Even if the Sunflower protesters only obtain minor concessions, this kind of mobilization alone was no small achievement.
*(There has been relatively little good reporting in English on this issue, so many of the links here are of mixed quality. I have, however, checked my information to the best of my ability across both English and Chinese-language sources, including local television reports. In a few cases in which English-language sources are not available, I’ve included links to Chinese-language sites. These are marked with a “*”.)
Excellent account and analysis of the sunflower movement in Taiwan.
I would only like to add one possible explanation on why Ma is so unyielding in his stance that pact must pass unmodified.
There are meeting minutes describing conversations between DPP and KMT officials on why KMT was so resistant to trying to get more benefits for Taiwanese people from the pact with China even when DPP was willing to play the bad cop. The KMT official’s response was that China does not recognize Taiwan having a legislative body with legislative power. Any review or modification of the pact would suggest otherwise.
From this conversation, I would surmise that Ma has chosen to uphold the position of China’s authority and forego the Taiwan citizen’s voices. But Ma really has no choice since by giving in to the people, he risks losing power in the eyes of Beijing. But by unyielding it appears he will also be losing the power given to him by Taiwan’s citizen. Especially with KMT divided, Ma is in a really really vulnerable position right now.
“The KMT official’s response was that China does not recognize Taiwan having a legislative body with legislative power”. I have seen this explanation circulating on Facebook, but the only “proof” that was offered were the words of a DPP legislator (an arguably radical one whose name I can’t remember now) insinuating this to be the case. In other words, these were (most probably) unfounded accusations by the DPP rather than the KMT’s official response. Beijing may not officially recognize the ROC’s legislature, but it is certainly well-aware of the situation in Taiwan, and of the fact that the KMT is institutionally constrained by legislative factors.
But I’d like to pose this question:
Why do present commentaries on the Movement, on the issue, treat this situation as if there were no constraints on Taiwan, as if it were a universally recognized country without any attachments to any nation whatsoever?
Don’t get me wrong. I also look at Taiwan as being de facto independent. However, I think people are leaving out the strong pan-Chinese factor in this situation. China’s policy regarding Taiwan is plain to all, and China has not budged from it. Taiwan cannot decide even its independence without risking military action by China. And its politics has almost entirely been consumed with being Chinese, i.e. for most of their contemporary history they’ve seen themselves as simply an alternative to the Communist leadership on the other side of the Strait.
Only recently have Taiwanese made any effort to pull away from this narrative, looking at themselves as fundamentally different from Chinese, and articulating their own culture. But the association with Chineseness still remains, also the attachment to the mainland by the KMT.
I think the discussion should revolve around whether Taiwan is prepared to confront the crumbling of the already-precarious status quo by asserting its democracy and independence now, or simply to go with the flow and become another Chinese SAR ten or fifteen years hence. This is the underlying, fundamental question.
The Tilly criteria, then, will not apply to Taiwan unless the necessary corrections are made to accommodate it.
Thanks for this great comment. By no means did I mean to imply that there are no constraints on Taiwan, but I would caution against essentializing Taiwan’s situation. Tilly’s criteria do not preclude the possibility of strong outside influence on either a social movement or the hosting society/state, so to say that his theory cannot apply to a social movement in Taiwan simply because Taiwan has a special relationship with China is similar to saying his work cannot apply in Canada because of its close relationship with the United States. No state or society operates totally independently, which is to say, all states and societies operate under substantial “constraints” and in the presence of outside influences.
I’d also caution against equating the modern government in Taiwan with the “Taiwanese.” Taiwan hosts substantial populations of descendants of both indigenous peoples and “native” Taiwanese (descendants of southern Chinese who came over in the 17th century) who were semi-independent or under non-Chinese rule for hundreds of years. Those who you refer to as the ones who “see themselves as simply an alternative to the Communist leadership on the other side of the Strait” were not present on Taiwan until about 60 years ago, and they were a minority of the population when they arrived. For as long as the Republic of China has been based on Taiwan, its claims to be “Chinese” or to sovereignty over the mainland have been contentious. It is thus incorrect so say that only recently have all “Taiwanese” begun thinking of themselves as fundamentally different. It is true, however, that a distinct Taiwanese identity (which can exist concurrently with a culturally “Chinese” identity) has grown more prevalent recently.
If you’re interested in more on the nature of identity in Taiwan, there is an interesting new paper out in Asian Survey, available here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/as.2013.53.6.1112
Thanks for this reply, sir, and for this reference. Forgive me for not making myself clear (for want of space). Firstly though, I would like to qualify that I’ve seen this tendency in a lot of commentaries I’ve read. And most of the other commentaries compare the Taiwanese situation to countries like Ukraine, which has a government composed of people who see their country as “Ukraine” and not “part of Russia”. This cannot stand well as a comparison: for starters, the KMT considers itself the “Republic of China”, and Taiwan as part of China.
Also, I concede that I find only the worthiness criterion to be wanting as applied to Taiwanese politics. What I meant to say was, at the end of the day, any value placed on “worthiness” by the Tilly criterion would have been rendered null and void by Chinese interference. China has overridden every single logical claim of its neighbors by an appeal to geopolitical clout, from the disputes with Japan regarding the Senkakus to the scuffles with the Philippines and Vietnam in the Spratlys. Might is right, or so China and the United States (and recently, Russia) would have us believe.
I am aware of the migration of mainlanders to this island after the Chinese Civil War, and their differences with the native population pre-1949. All that is documented in histories of the island, etched in official commemorations, studied by Taiwan scholars. Thanks to the democratic breakthrough, all of these materials are readily accessible.
As I see it though, the present youth of Taiwan have done away with the old mainlander/native dichotomy of their parents. They are a culture unto themselves. This is the set of people I was referring to in my comment.
This is the generation that has occupied the Legislative Yuan.
They are the heirs to the government and society, and I say they are still quite confused regarding what I have articulated in the second-to-last paragraph. The ethnocultural platforms of the KMT and the DPP do not particularly sway them in general. But I feel it is precisely them who have to answer this question, and give a strong answer. I’m saying that we are waiting on them for the answer, and it is not up to their parents anyhow. If it were, Taiwan in 2008 would not have elected a president who promised increased prosperity in exchange for the dampening of Taiwanese identity. The generation that chose to live apart from China was content with not having much, and would have given more to further their dream of an independent Taiwan even through the hard way, as we saw in 2000 when they defied Chinese pressure and elected Chen Shui-bian.
Three quick responses here:
First, the reason many consider a comparison with the Ukraine to be so apt is that many people living in Ukrainian territory *do* actually consider themselves to be Russians. Some people in government may feel differently, but the government is not equivalent to the Ukrainian nation/people. More pertinently, government is not the focus of Tilly’s analysis in this theory. Rather, Tilly is attempting to explain social movements.
Second, the KMT does consider Taiwan to be the seat of government for *a* China — the Republic of China — but that is completely different from claiming that Taiwan is politically part of the *PRC’s* China, as you imply. Not even the KMT’s government makes that claim.
Third, again, keep in mind that Tilly’s theory applies to social movements, not to the state or to governments. He is not talking about geopolitics, he is talking about modes of contestation by social groups, usually in opposition to a government. Further, Chinese influence was already key in these protests, and the majority of Taiwanese were clear in their response to it: they oppose it. Stronger Chinese interference would almost certainly influence Taiwanese citizens’ metrics for worthiness, but I don’t see any reason to believe such interference would necessarily convince more Taiwanese that such a movement would be *un*worthy. Quite the contrary, it seems far more likely to convince even more Taiwanese that such resistance is necessary and worthy.
Hi, thanks for the article. I’m curious as to how realistic it is to have to submit trade negotiations to public oversight during negotiations or having to go back to the table after a trade pact has been rejected by a plebiscite or public consultations and if this model has been adopted by any countries, as this seems to be one of the main “appeals to reason” that pro-pact advocates are pushing for, while they describe the opposition’s measures to submit the bill to more scrutiny as partisan maneuvering.
I’ve read a lot in the papers about Wang Jin-pyng’s “defection” being not as surprising as you mentioned in your article, as many editorials had predicted a move by Wang against Ma in light of the attempts by Ma to strip him of his KMT membership. So I’m curious if a move against party lines in this context is still surprising and if this kind of coup by Wang has much chance of success?
I’d also like you to address whether the DPP’s continued refusal to review the bill on the basis that they couldn’t make any alterations to it before the KMT forced a vote on it was a normal practice and its constitutionality.