This publication is from Carnegie’s Civic Research Network. It draws on material from the author’s forthcoming book, Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement (Temple University Press, 2019).
Like Hong Kong, South Korea, and elsewhere, Taiwan has been jolted by massive protests and a bout of renewed citizen activism in recent years. In March 2014, young protesters upended the island’s political landscape by temporarily seizing control of the national legislature. Their activist opposition to a pending free trade agreement with China attracted broad public attention and support, helped prompt a change in government in early 2016, and unleashed a wave of young activism that continues to reshape Taiwanese politics.
Crucially, many youthful protesters of the Sunflower Movement have remained energetically committed to several avenues of political action since 2014. Participants have driven new forms of protest and activism, played meaningful roles in both new and existing parties, and encouraged the government to reassess key policy issues, including nuclear power and education. Taiwan provides a model of how activists can sometimes transition from extra-institutional protests to conventional forms of political participation.
Mass Protests and a Torrent of Activism
The Sunflower Movement set off a political tidal wave. Beginning in mid-March, hundreds of student protesters physically occupied Taiwan’s national legislature for roughly three weeks to oppose a proposed free trade agreement with China. Student leaders’ nimble protest tactics and commitment to nonviolence and civic-mindedness helped the ensuing large-scale civic movement win mass support. A late 2014 poll indicated that more than half of Taiwanese respondents (53.3 percent) supported the movement. Despite the efforts of then president Ma Ying-jeou and the Kuomintang (KMT) ruling party, the Sunflower Movement helped encourage public scrutiny of closer economic integration with China, hamstring the trade proposal, and stymie subsequent efforts to liberalize trade with Beijing. The January 2016 election eventually ushered in even greater political change. President Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)—Taiwan’s independence-leaning, longtime opposition force—wrested power from the KMT and gained control of the legislature.
But even before the January 2016 election, the Sunflower Movement gave way to an inspiring explosion of enthusiastic activism. Amid this political renewal, Sunflower Movement participants formed a number of new organizations that similarly emphasized direct democracy, social justice, and Taiwanese identity. Five of the most influential such groups were Taiwan March (daoguo qianjin), Democracy Tautin (minzhu douzhen),1 Democracy Kuroshio, Youth Against Oppression in Taiwan (taizuo weixin), and the Formoshock Society (fuermosha huishe).
The proliferation of these groups reflected the number and the diversity of the Sunflower activists. Taiwan March was led by celebrities and collected signatures nationwide to lower the legal threshold for initiating a referendum. Democracy Kuroshio was mainly composed of southern Taiwanese who felt marginalized during the occupation of the legislature. Meanwhile, Democracy Tautin staged high-profile protests against then president Ma’s cross-strait policies. These groups helped preview the notable political changes to come. However, most of them ceased to be active once the Tsai administration took office in May 2016, mostly because their participants were absorbed into the DPP and other newly formed political parties.
Other new post–Sunflower Movement initiatives proliferated as well. A coalition of nongovernmental organizations launched a campaign for constitutional reform in response to the movement’s demand for a citizens’ constitutional conference. A related movement sought to lower the voting age from twenty to eighteen. Some of this activism predated the March 2014 occupation of the legislature, including efforts to strengthen public supervision of lawmakers. One newly founded watchdog group called Watchout (wocao) aimed to utilize digital communications tools to improve public understanding of the legislature.
The durability of this wave of activism suggests that it had deep societal roots and was not really about just a single trade agreement. The trade controversy underscored several interrelated social problems that paved the way for this youthful activism and engagement. These intractable problems included worsening economic inequality; opaque, unjust, and unaccountable governing institutions and procedures; and a growing but threatened sense of Taiwanese identity. The eruption of the Sunflower Movement represented the climax of a protest cycle that started with the KMT’s return to power under Ma years before in 2008. Taiwanese student activism—which had been largely dormant since the 1990 Wild Lily Movement—gradually resurfaced and expanded to include a growing number of young participants. Taiwan’s highly educated, but economically insecure, young people have been at the forefront of this insurgent civil society. This youthful movement has been enabled by digital media and driven by a generational sense of relative deprivation among young activists, as the rapid economic growth and upward class mobility that their parents’ generation enjoyed have been denied to them.
One factor that has propelled this protest-based activism has been a surging sense of indigenous identity, as Taiwan has experienced the pernicious effects of having an increasingly powerful and assertive China on its doorstep. China is a divisive topic in Taiwan not only because Beijing claims sovereignty over the self-governing island but also because of Taiwan’s own domestic political cleavages. Starting in the late 1940s, postwar Taiwan was led by an émigré KMT regime that established a second life on the island; the KMT had been uprooted from mainland China after being defeated in the civil war with the Chinese Communists. Before the KMT’s arrival, Taiwan had been a Japanese colony for fifty-one years. After its arrival on Taiwan, the KMT justified its prolonged ethnic rule of Chinese mainlanders over the Taiwanese in terms of its anti-communist mission. The lifting of martial law in 1987 by the KMT unleashed forces of democratization and indigenization, and access to political power has since been gradually opened up for the Taiwanese people.
At the same time, the ethnic divide has become less prominent as the term Taiwanese has transitioned from being an ethnic category to being a more inclusive form of national identity.
In the last decade, the share of residents who identify strongly as Taiwanese has grown substantially. In 2008, when Ma took office, a leading survey from National Chengchi University indicated that 48.4 percent of respondents in Taiwan identified as predominantly Taiwanese, 43.1 percent identified as both Chinese and Taiwanese, and 4 percent identified as predominantly Chinese. By 2014, the gap between those who identified as Taiwanese (60.6 percent) and as both Chinese and Taiwanese (32.5 percent) had grown markedly, although this gap has shrunk slightly in subsequent years. The identity shift among young Taiwanese has been particularly noticeable, since they are less exposed to the anti-China indoctrination that was prevalent during the martial-law era (1949–1987) under former KMT leaders Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo.
Electoral Participation in Parties New and Old
Some participants in the Sunflower Movement went beyond activist efforts to pressure government officials and got more directly involved in politics. These Sunflower activists seemed to reject the notion that activism that obstructs the functioning of democratic institutions cannot coincide with participation in electoral politics. Many of them embraced electoral competition as early as Taiwan’s November 2014 local elections. Many candidates with experience in the Sunflower Movement ran in these local councilor elections. A couple of young Green Party members were successfully elected, marking the party’s most important success since it was formed in 1996.
As the DPP gathered steam during the 2016 election season, the KMT lost support from voters across regions, ethnic backgrounds, and age groups. Many Sunflower participants were dissatisfied with the KMT, yet some of them chose to form new parties to continue their activism because they saw the DPP as too prone to political compromise.2 In a post-election report, the KMT acknowledged the Sunflower Movement as one of the reasons it lost. When the dust settled, President-elect Tsai and the DPP secured sixty-eight of 113 legislative seats and the KMT garnered only thirty-five, while a few other parties won at least one seat.
The media paid significant attention to the so-called Third Force (di san shili) during the electoral campaign. This ensemble of often activist-linked third parties includes the New Power Party (NPP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The NPP opted for an alliance with the DPP by supporting Tsai’s presidential bid, whereas the SDP maintained a neutral approach by working with the Green Party. Altogether, the NPP, the SDP, and the Green Party fielded twenty-three candidates in the election for seventy-three district lawmaker seats.
Having evolved from a post–Sunflower Movement activist group (Taiwan March), the NPP broke into the national legislature electorally, emerging as its third-largest party with five seats. The NPP’s political surge marked a smooth transition from civil disobedience to electoral campaigning, taking the movement into the formal political arena. The SDP and the Green Party, on the other hand, failed to win any seats. Given the NPP’s claim to be the political representative of the youthful movement, the fate of the Sunflower Movement appeared to have come full circle. The NPP will seek to maintain a presence in Taiwanese electoral politics in the upcoming November 2018 local elections.
But the Sunflower Movement has not only spawned new parties—it also has pushed existing parties to reach out to the new activists. Despite the media hype surrounding the Third Force, many youthful activists actually did decide to join the DPP. With its historical origins in the opposition movement, the DPP skillfully attracted a young generation of activists. As an established political party, it boasted greater resources than new entrants, which provided a helpful boost to young aspiring political figures. Meanwhile, the KMT suffered from a revolt of young voters. Some KMT politicians recruited young staff to burnish its image, but the party did not make overtures to Sunflower activists. Given the confrontation during the occupation of the legislature, the KMT practically speaking cannot win the hearts and minds of most Sunflower participants.
In the 2014 election, the DPP launched a project called Democracy Grass (minzhu xiaocao) that sponsored young first-timers taking part in elections for ward/village heads, the lowest level of administrative officials in Taiwan. All told, thirty-seven candidates signed up for the program, and nine of them were successfully elected. The program was designed to be a goodwill gesture to young voters because it did not require participants to register under the DPP name. As a result, some candidates registered as nonpartisans.
During the 2016 presidential election, several Sunflower activists worked on Tsai’s campaign. After the inauguration of the DPP government, these former activists were given executive or assistant positions in various branches of government, including the Presidential Office, the Executive Yuan, the National Security Council, and DPP headquarters. Clearly, the DPP intends to groom these young participants to be next-generation politicians. In this spirit, for the 2018 primaries for local councilor nominations, the DPP has made it easier for first-time candidates under thirty-five years old to participate. As of July 29, 2018, a few well-known Sunflower leaders have been nominated.
Two Policy Victories for Activists
As arguably the largest protest-based mobilization in Taiwan’s history, the Sunflower Movement and subsequent activism have had powerful spillover policy effects beyond the impact on electoral politics. Two strains of activism have achieved two concrete policy objectives: phasing out nuclear power and instituting education reforms. These aims likely would not have been achieved if the Sunflower Movement had not ignited a new ethos of civic contestation.
Activism first led to profound changes to Taiwan’s energy policy under the Ma administration. With roots in the late 1980s, Taiwan’s anti–nuclear power movement saw a resurgence following the 2011 Fukushima incident in Japan. Yet, prior to the 2016 election, rising public skepticism about nuclear power in public opinion polls failed to persuade KMT leaders to give up their controversial plans to build a fourth nuclear power plant. Just days after the occupation of the legislature ended, Lin Yi-hsiung, a respected senior leader famous for his involvement in Taiwan’s democratization movement, staged a week-long hunger strike to pressure the government to abandon the new nuclear plant. During that frenzied week, the anti–nuclear power movement experienced an unprecedented high tide, as spontaneous protests, rallies, and candlelight vigils sprouted up.
To ward off the mounting pressure, the KMT government mothballed the new nuclear plant’s first reactor and stopped construction on the second one. After the change of government in 2016, DPP leaders further decided to phase out existing nuclear reactors when their forty-year operating permits expire, and they have launched an ambitious renewable energy program to fill the gap. Taiwan is expected to be free of nuclear energy as of 2025.3
Taiwanese activists also galvanized opposition to Ma-era education policies that were seen as biased in favor of China. In early 2014, the KMT government had unveiled revised high school curriculum guidelines that critical opposition parties and some historians and teachers protested would promote China-centric viewpoints. The curriculum dispute reemerged in the summer of 2015, when the new textbooks were about to be adopted for the upcoming autumn semester. In what was dubbed a high-school version of the Sunflower Movement, hundreds of teenagers occupied the front square of the Ministry of Education for a week in early August 2015. State education officials conceded by allowing each school to decide whether to use the new textbooks. Later, under Tsai’s DPP government, the controversial curriculum guidelines were abolished, and the procedures for proposing future revisions were broadened to allow for student representation.4
These policy changes were significant because nuclear energy and efforts to re-Sinicize Taiwanese education had been among the Ma government’s core priorities. He had continued to pursue these aims in the face of mounting protests from civil society and opposition parties. In retrospect, if the Sunflower Movement protesters had not occupied the legislature, Ma might have realized these two goals by the end of his tenure.
Another Election Around the Corner
Taiwan’s upcoming November 2018 local election will be a midterm test for Tsai’s DPP government. Tsai and the ruling DPP are emphasizing their reform achievements related to pensions, welfare, the post–nuclear energy transition, transitional justice, and other issues, while the KMT is seeking to capitalize on Tsai’s low approval ratings. Issues that are of central concern to Sunflower activists, including same-sex marriage and labor rights, are not likely to be in the spotlight amid the crossfire between the mainstream parties.
The fall 2018 contest also will be a crucible for young would-be politicians with other party affiliations. The NPP is gearing up to ambitiously expand on calls for youthful political participation. As of July 28, 2018, the party has nominated thirty-nine candidates for local councilor elections. The NPP, the SDP, and Taiwan Radical Wings (another post-Sunflower party) entered an alliance to coordinate their nomination efforts.
The post–Sunflower Movement political evolution of Taiwan demonstrates that the gap between protest activism and electoral participation can be bridged. One major reason is that the country’s democracy is still young, as its first presidential election took place in 1996. Past experience has shown that unpopular parties can be voted out of office. Taiwan previously underwent peaceful regime change twice prior to 2016, in 2000 and 2008. Taiwan’s political future admittedly remains overshadowed by China’s increasingly assertive territorial claims. Yet a consolidated Taiwanese identity and a mainstream Taiwanese preference to maintain its autonomy have emerged as points of overarching consensus.
Taiwanese activists’ transition to party politics has been possible partly because the Sunflower Movement was driven by citizens’ yearning for genuine democracy, not by disillusionment or alienation. Although the initial 2014 protests were highly disruptive, the movement’s core demands for procedural justice, transparency, and political accountability in cross-strait negotiations were moderate, not radical. The protesters aimed to change the minds of those in power. When it turned out that obtaining electoral power was no more difficult than battling the police, why would any of them bother to break the law? Taiwan’s Sunflower protesters smoothly transformed into professional politicians because democracy has been popularly accepted as the only game in town.
Ming-sho Ho is a professor of sociology at National Taiwan University. He is the author of Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement (Temple University Press, 2019). He is a member of Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.
1 Tautin means “fighting together” in Taiwanese.
2 Lev Nachman, “Misalignment Between Social Movements and Political Parties in Taiwan’s 2016 Election: Not All Grassroots Are Green,” Asian Survey (forthcoming).
3 Ming-sho Ho, “The Historical Breakthroughs of Taiwan’s Anti-Nuclear Movement: The Making of a Militant Citizen Movement,” Journal of Contemporary Asia (forthcoming).
4 Chun-ying Wu, et al., “Women weishemne fandui kegang weidiao” [The reasons why we oppose the curriculum guideline revisions] (Taipei: Yushanshe, 2015).