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Taiwan's Student Sunflower Movement: Interview with Two of its Leaders

April 11, 2014

Huang Yu-fen & Wei Yang of the Sunflower Movement

MADELEINE LYNN: I'm Madeleine Lynn, from Carnegie Council.

The last three weeks have seen something unprecedented in Taiwan's history. For the first time, activists occupied Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, or parliament. The sit-in, known as the Sunflower Student Movement, lasted for over three weeks, from March 18 to April 10. On April 7, the students agreed to withdraw, after the government promised to postpone ratifying the trade agreement with China which originally sparked the protest.

Today we'll talk about the Sunflower Movement and its future with two of its leaders, Wei Yang and Huang Yu-fen. They have just come from Washington, DC, where they met with members of Congress. They are the first Sunflower Movement activists to visit the United States following the protests, and we're delighted to have the opportunity to speak with them today.

Welcome to Carnegie Council, Yang and Yu-fen.

WEI YANG: Thank you.

MADELEINE LYNN: First of all, can you tell us about the trade pact and why the Sunflower Movement objects to it?

WEI YANG: The trade pact is one of the trade deals that is under the framework of ECFA (Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement). I think you know that is the framework of trade negotiations between Taiwan and China. This service trade agreement, STA, was signed last year, June. There were no notifications to the Legislative Yuan beforehand. In very short time, the legislators knew about this, and they could hardly get to know this issue. They cannot communicate with their voters in their districts.

The government and the civil society had no communication. There were no comprehensive impact assessments. There were no deliberations about the trade pact. We called it a black-box operation, and this is outrageous to the people. So around July and August to September, there were numbers of protests. Because of those protests, the government kind of made a compromise, to say we will hold 20 public hearings, and after the public hearings, it will go to the Legislative Yuan and be reviewed item by item. After that, it goes to a floor and vote.

But on March 17 this year, 2014, the agreement to review the STA item by item was broken by the KMT (the ruling Kuomintang Nationalist Party) legislators. This makes the people very, very angry. That is why there were about 300 students and protesters who occupied the Legislative Yuan in the first place on March 18. When this news came out, more and more students and people just came to the Legislative Yuan and joined the protest. So it became thousands of them.

That's pretty much a brief version of the whole trade agreement.

MADELEINE LYNN: Thank you, Yang. That's very helpful.

Now, I understand that the students and also the DPP, the Democratic Progressive Party, objected to, as you say, the black-box decision making, the undemocratic process by which this was done. But are you also objecting to the content of the agreement? My understanding is that the agreement is opening trade so that people from both territories can invest in a wide range of service industries in the other territory, such as publishing, communications, banking, travel, tourism, and so on.

I know that Ma Ying-jeou, your president, argues that this will boost Taiwan's economy. Does the DPP and the Sunflower Movement agree with that, or is it simply the undemocratic method that it has been pushed through?

WEI YANG: There were a lot of opinions toward the issue. Some will say the most important thing is the due process, the democratic process, has to be followed. But some of the activists think that the content of the trade agreement itself has some problems, too. For example, the department of service industry in Taiwan is about 70 percent of our GDP and 60 percent of our population. Most of them are medium and small businesses. If this opens to the Chinese business, which are mostly big capitalists, it might be overwhelmed and have a serious impact.

We want to review the trade agreement content very carefully and see what kind of industry should be carefully dealt with. For example, maybe the minority in this industry shouldn't be opened and we just open, for example, the banking or financial sectors. This is one point.

There are also concerns over national security. For example, the press industry or the infrastructure shouldn't be open.

So there were a lot of discussions about the content of the trade agreement.

MADELEINE LYNN: That's very helpful. I think it's interesting that you call the Chinese industries capitalist ones, which they really are at this point, but it's sort of state capitalism, a lot of it, if you like.

I'd like to talk a little about the logistics of the demonstrations and what happened. Then maybe we'll go on to some of the bigger issues.

First of all, how big were these demonstrations, and who were the demonstrators exactly? Were they all students? Were there other groups involved?

WEI YANG: The protesters occupied the chamber room, which had about 200 or 300 people in it. Three roads around the Legislative Yuan were also occupied by people, in each of them around 1,000 of them. In a regular day, there might be 3,000 protesters, but on March 30, we held a party at the road in front of the president's building, like the White House. I don't know how to call that. There were—[in Chinese]

MADELEINE LYNN: There were about half a million people.

WEI YANG: Yes, half a million people. It was a record.

MADELEINE LYNN: Yes. I read that the police, of course, dispute the number. But certainly it was well over 100,000, and perhaps half a million, which is a tremendous show of support.

WEI YANG: This ranks top three in the history of Taiwan.

MADELEINE LYNN: I believe it. It's a huge number.

So who were the organizers? Were you all students?

WEI YANG: Students like us were in the decision-making circle, and also NGOs—several NGOs—which had paid a lot of attention to the issues for a long time, and also other student organizations. Students just came from the central and southern part of Taiwan, just came themselves, all joining the movement.

MADELEINE LYNN: And how did the general public react to this?

WEI YANG: I heard that there were several polls that say about 70 to 80 percent of the population supported the occupation.

MADELEINE LYNN: That's wonderful. That's really fantastic.

Here at Carnegie Council, of course, we're very interested in nonviolent protests and nonviolent revolutions. As I understand it, this was a nonviolent protest. Was this a strategic decision from the very beginning?

WEI YANG: Yes. I would say from last year, so that you know, we had several big demonstrations. For example, on August 3 and August 18, there were also big demonstrations. The one on August 18 even occupied the Department of Internal Affairs. We occupied those government institutions—some would call it violent, but we defined a nonviolent movement as we won't hurt the police or we won't hurt anybody. The occupation, we defined it as a nonviolent movement.

So this is the strategy from last year to this year.

MADELEINE LYNN: I see. That's good.

I know at one point there was a scuffle with the police. The police brought in water cannons, and you yourself, Yang, were detained for a while.

WEI YANG: Yes.

MADELEINE LYNN: But as I understand it, that was not a major part of the demonstrations. But I do have to ask, what is the Sunflower Movement's opinion about the legality of occupying the government for three weeks and basically shutting down the government, in a way?

WEI YANG: You ask Sunflower Movement's opinion?

MADELEINE LYNN: Yes.

WEI YANG: Well, of course, we support it. We think that, because the government—or, say, our democracy—is dis-functioning or ill-functioned, it definitely has some problems. That is why we occupy it and we try to push the government to give promises to people that they will repairs it or make it better.

The most important thing is, if we don't occupy the chamber room, the service trade agreement will be passed very quickly. In Taiwan's history, if the bill is brought to the floor for a vote, the KMT party has an overwhelming advantage in voting, so they can just vote it passed.

MADELEINE LYNN: I see.

WEI YANG: So we have to occupy the chamber room. We have to paralyze the functioning of the government.

MADELEINE LYNN: So you think the way government is set up at the moment, there's just no other legal way to do this?

WEI YANG: We have tried legal ways before. For example, we participated in all the 20 public hearings and we raised a lot of questions we want the government to answer, to respond, or to give us promises. But there was never a positive response.

That is why most of the demonstrations in Taiwan happened, because the government rejected all the legal ways that we have been doing. So it pushed us to the edge.

MADELEINE LYNN: I understand.

It seemed, really, that the DPP, the opposition party, and the KMT, the ruling nationalist party, have reached a stalemate, in this issue and in other issues. There seems no way to break it. That's a real problem.

I just want to go back a little bit. Looking at Taiwan's history, Taiwan has a history of student movements, effective student movements, such as the Wild Lily movement in 1990, which led to Taiwan's first general democratic elections. Then there was the Wild Strawberries movement in 2008, when a Chinese official visited the island and students waved the flag of Taiwan.

Do you see the Sunflower Movement as a continuation of this legacy or do you see it as something new and different?

WEI YANG: I think, in some way, it is a continuation, because it is all in searching or struggling for democracy. It was all at the moment when our democracy is in crisis. So in this sense, yes, it's a continuation.

But there are also very clear distinctions. For example, our generation of young people were called "strawberries," because we are very tender or we cannot handle pressure. But back in the 1980s, the students were more vigorous. They tried to fight the system of authoritarian government. They are two different people.

MADELEINE LYNN: I know the Strawberry Generation is seen as this spoiled, soft generation.

WEI YANG: I think what is very special in this movement is that a lot of students that we thought are cold to the public issues, they actually stand out and get involved in the social topics and social movements, social issues.

MADELEINE LYNN: Yes.

Were you influenced by other movements abroad—for instance, the Occupy Wall Street movement here or the Arab Spring or other movements?

WEI YANG: I think, when those movements broke out, we were all inspired and very excited. So you can say that it added to our determination that Taiwan must fight for democracy. But at the very moment that we decided to act, we just saw the situation in Taiwan, and we hadn't much thought about to learn from other countries' experiences.

MADELEINE LYNN: Absolutely. And, as I said, Taiwan has, certainly, its own tradition.

I saw also—I was just interested—that Wang Dan and, I think, Wu'er Kaixi turned up, the Tiananmen protesters from 25 years ago, from mainland China. But they were not a part of starting this, were they?

WEI YANG: No.

MADELEINE LYNN: I didn't think so.

WEI YANG: Wu'er Kaixi was in the chamber room. He was there.

MADELEINE LYNN: This is a Taiwanese movement, but it is interesting that there are these problems across the straits. In some ways, I think the—

WEI YANG: I think they are very excited, too.

MADELEINE LYNN: The yearning for democracy is the same, except that Taiwan has gone a lot further than China has, if I may say.

I read somewhere, too, that one thing that was different about this movement now, in 2014, was that you have social media to use. How did that work out for you?

WEI YANG: Tremendous. Back in 2008, when Wild Strawberry took place, the main social media that we used was called PTT Bulletin Board System. It's not like Facebook. You cannot post pictures. There is no personal profile in that social media.You can post news on something and discuss the news.

But now Facebook really helps, because our fan page has 300,000 people.

MADELEINE LYNN: That's amazing.

Okay. So on April 7, the students agreed to leave, and you left peacefully on April 10. The question is, what's next? What are the next steps for the Sunflower Movement?

WEI YANG: On this issue, of course, I cannot speak for the whole Sunflower Movement activities. As far as I know, there was somebody talking about going back to the campus, doing grassroots organizations. For example, if we go to the central part of Taiwan, several college students gather up and found a new organization and do self-empowerment. They know about the issues and protest to the legislators in their districts, something like that. We call it grassroots organization.

We want to do that. We try to do that. We had tried it once before, last year, but it failed, because the threshold is just too high to recall a legislator.

MADELEINE LYNN: These are not elected officials? Or they are elected officials? You're talking about the legislators who are elected officials?

WEI YANG: Yes, elected representatives.

We want to pass a law monitoring the trade agreement that is signed between China and Taiwan. With this law, we can avoid the situation happening again.

MADELEINE LYNN: Talking about the trade agreement, obviously the trade agreement was what sparked this protest and the Sunflower Movement. But, of course, the larger question is really the future of Taiwan in relation to China. I know Ma Ying-jeou believes that more trade with China, more free backwards-and-forwards with China will be good for Taiwan. But on the other hand, many people are worried about being swallowed up by China.

What are your feelings about Ma Ying-jeou's idea of eventual peaceful reunification for Taiwan? Or do you see Taiwan as independent?

WEI YANG: I think whether unification or independence, this has to be left to the Taiwanese people themselves. I don't think President Ma's will can just decide it for us.

The Sunflower Movement didn't just say we want our independence. We don't go that far. But what we insist on is the sovereignty and the subjectivity of our own country. We don't want the intervening of other forces outside of our country, for example, from China.

President Ma Ying-jeou always said, "Economy is economy and political is political. We are just making business, doing business. Don't involve the politics."

But Taiwan's economic reliance on China is just too much. The economy is never just the economy. China always tries to use the economic influence to affect Taiwan's political system. For example, when there's a big campaign and election, they will jump out and say, "Well, if somebody gets elected, Taiwan's economy will go down very badly," and just totally affect Taiwan's economy or stock market or something.

So they use that as a weapon, use our dependence on their economy as a weapon.

We think we cannot go any further. At least we have to look at it very closely, very carefully.

MADELEINE LYNN: Yes. I agree, you can't separate politics and economics. It doesn't work that way—though, in fact, of course, the two countries or territories are coming closer together, simply because there is so much business going on anyway. I don't know how many Taiwanese are living in China at this point.

WEI YANG: A lot.

MADELEINE LYNN: I think the official figure is something like 170,000. But that cannot represent all the Taiwanese who are constantly working in China.

But I think what you're afraid of is the opposite happening—having many Chinese working in Taiwan, perhaps.

WEI YANG: Yesterday, we had a chat with scholars from China. They gave us a very interesting opinion. They said we have to keep struggling for our democracy so that we can help China become more democratic. In that case, the relations between Taiwan and China will be beneficial, not the other way around. If we both become more democratic, then the close relationship between us won't end up in the absorbing of Taiwan to China.

MADELEINE LYNN: Absolutely. And I would say that Taiwan really could be a role model for many countries—a country that has gone from an authoritarian country and had a peaceful transition to democracy, a democracy that still has problems but is a democracy all the same. It's quite remarkable what Taiwan has done.

WEI YANG: Yes.

MADELEINE LYNN: So what happens for you two next? What will you be doing personally?

WEI YANG: Because we are both from the organization of the Dark Island Nation Youth Front, which is one of the organizations who lead the movement, we want to do a workshop so that the organization would have more participants, so that next time, if these kinds of issues happen again—for example, there is going to be a product trade agreement and peace agreement. I think the peace agreement means unification, something like that.

Anyway, if these kinds of issues happen again, then we need more organizations. So as far as I'm concerned, I want to turn the popularity of this movement into a real organization, a real force of organizations.

MADELEINE LYNN: Going back to the organization of the Sunflower Movement and just the various grassroots movements in general, you have various student organizations across Taiwan?

WEI YANG: Yes.

MADELEINE LYNN: And how are they enlisting the general public to get involved? Or is this mainly just a student issue?

WEI YANG: It's not just about students. Students gather around because we have the same ways of life and we know each other from Facebook.

MADELEINE LYNN: Of course.

WEI YANG: But the topic we are facing actually has a general problem behind it, I think. That is, of course, what we call "the China factor." We just mentioned that China wants to absorb Taiwan, through various ways.

Another is what I call, "the development is out of control." For example, we [business and government] want to build a lot of big factories, which will pollute the city, the village. The government just takes over people's land and tears down their houses just for a big factory, or a big company wants to build a plant.

You can all see that the problem is that the government and the big businessmen are working together to earn more profit, to make more money, and the people at the bottom just cannot fight back.

During the past few years, students from everywhere, they gather up and we see that common problem behind all the issues. So we are coming to realize we have to fight against the general problem, which is China, "the China factor," and "the development is out of control."

MADELEINE LYNN: I see.

Just one last question. Here we have a very powerful student movement that has achieved a lot and will continue to work on these two issues. Do you think that in the future perhaps some of you will form a third party, a formal third-force party? Is that a possibility?

WEI YANG: This is an issue that has been discussed for a long time. Taiwan, I think—for more than five years, back from 2008 or something, there were discussions about a third party. But you have to know that the political structure in Taiwan is very difficult to de-structure.

Yes, of course, we see the problem, and the third party is an option here. A lot of our friends are trying to do that.

MADELEINE LYNN: I think in the long run that may be the answer to the deadlock.

On that note, I'd like to thank you both, Yang and Yu-fen, for coming here today. We wish you luck in the future in Taiwan.

WEI YANG: Thank you.

HUANG YU-FEN: Thank you.

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