Two student movements, one learning from the other

Written by Mark Wenyi Lai.

Image credit: 揮不去 by Ryanne Lai/Flickr, license CC BY-NC 2.0

The 30th anniversary of Chinese June Fourth Incident is here. One of the surviving leaders of the Tiananmen student movement, Wang Dan, visited Taipei in May. He sat in a symposium and happily chatted with Taiwanese scholars Fan Yun and Wu Jiemin. Fan and Wu were both leaders in the 1990 Wild Lily student movement which marked the turning point in Taiwan’s process of democratization. Students called for the direct election of the president and they successfully transformed society to be more plural and progressive. Many of the leaders of the Wild Lily movement became activists in social reforms and participants in central politics. The Minister of Culture, Cheng Li-chiun, recalled how the Tiananmen protest changed her and her friends’ views on politics and they then joined in the Wild Lily movement in 1990. The Minister of Transportation and Communication, Lin Chia-Lung, also discussed the link between Tiananmen and the Wild Lilies in his Facebook post.

The differences between China’s June Fourth Incident in 1989 and Taiwan’s Wild Lily Student movement in 1990 indicate the cross-Strait increasing divergence of political paths over the past thirty years. The former ended with Type 59 tanks on Tiananmen Square and a more tightened and illiberal CCP governance. The latter paved the way for full democratization and more socially progressive movements in Taiwan. Why were they so different?

After decades of turbulent wars and revolutions, China re-entered the global market in the 1980s. That was the decade of economic growth and setbacks, of political liberalization and tightening control, as well as of Westernization and the rise of Chinese nationalism. In the 1980s Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leaders Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang had advocated for and practiced reforms in socioeconomic sectors but the political-military establishment remained intact and stubborn. Although social development was plural and vibrant, China was nowhere close to a breakthrough of democratization in 1989.

The Democracy Wall incident in the late 1970s signalled the first wave of a grassroots movement. But without a legitimate opposition, an open and organized forum for political discussion and the implicit tolerance from the CCP, the calling for democracy in China remained weak and random. Thus, the 1989 protest by elite students and citizens in Beijing was raw and fresh but also lacking order and without clear means and ends. The hardliners in the Party were still in charge of the main sectors of the state. They had guns, media, the courts, and the state machine. The regime was solid and invincible.

On the other hand, although surely not a full democracy in 1990, Taiwan had experienced a series of political changes in the past decade. The Zhongli incident in 1977 initiated a wave of street protests. The Kaohsiung Incident in 1979 and its trial drew international attention. Several assassinations of opposition leaders in the following years saw the Taiwanese people mount political pressure on the ageing and seriously ill President Chiang Ching-Kuo. Several months before his demise in 1988 and in response to growing pressure, he initiated a top-down democratization process — including lifting martial law — and lifted the bans on newspaper publication and political parties. Meanwhile, on the street, Taiwanese people continued their struggle in the forms of peasant riots, labour strikes, the anti-nuclear movement, and other acts of resistance. In 1989, the self-immolation of Taiwan independence activists Cheng and Zhan expressed the deep anger of extreme thoughts. But the public apathy toward these tragedies showed Taiwanese people’s reluctance to violently rebel against authority.

Accordingly, the Wild Lily student movement of 1990 did not generate a shock. Students were joining the democratization movement but not creating a new one. Student organizations decided to distinguish themselves from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). This move showed their intention and the necessity to form a pure voice outside the already messy party politics.

Overall, this essay provides three assessments to explain the different ending of two student protests. First, in the 1980s the KMT regime was not as solid as that of the CCP. Taiwan, the so-called “Free China”, had the son of the former dictator as its leader. It had already lost diplomatic support from the US and its seat in the United Nations. In 1985, Chiang Ching-Kuo had to announce that no member of his family would be a candidate for the next president. He then appointed a Taiwanese instead of mainlander to be his successor. Lee Teng-hui and other KMT establishment figures formed the collective leadership when the Wild Lily movement emerged. Neither Lee nor other KMT political heavyweights had the power to choose a hard response to student protestors.

Second, from the early 1980s until the Wild Lily movement, the KMT had learned the lesson that the general public in Taiwan preferred a peaceful transition because the status quo was not completely bad. Taiwan enjoyed an average 8.46% GDP growth throughout the decade and GDP per capita reached the same level as in Hong Kong, Singapore, and other developed countries. There was no legitimate reason for students to escalate their protest and, subsequently, nor was there a legitimate reason for the government to resort to extreme measures in response.

Third, only eight months before the Wild Lily protest, students in Taiwan learned from the 24 hour live television broadcasts that showed the rise and fall of the Tiananmen Square student movement. Day by day, Taiwanese students saw how Chinese students in Beijing organized the crowd, formed the management unit, and executed orders. They also saw how Chinese students failed to negotiate with the government and lost the unity of their own group, finally letting things get out of control and descend into chaos.

Students in Taiwan improved their movement. They gave a straightforward and reasonable proposal to the government. They kept the protest passionate, peaceful, and educational. They earned public support and positive media attention. They should thank their Chinese comrades. The Wild Lily movement was a successful student protest because they had good teachers.

Ironically, after 1990, most of the participants in the Wild Lily movement chose to side with the DDP and other pan-green institutions. The fervour for Taiwanese nationalism, partially nurtured by anti-China sentiment, became the mainstream political voice. The June Fourth Incident is no longer part of Taiwanese history. The KMT also choose not to mention it to preserve its cosy relationship with Beijing. Thirty years have passed and few remember that students in Tiananmen enlightened and taught a generation of Taiwanese how to use their youth to change the politics and how to sing the song of L’Internationale word by word.

Mark Wenyi Lai is an Associate Professor, Department of International Affairs, Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan. He published article focusing on cross-Strait relations, American foreign policy and international political economy.

Reflecting on the 30th anniversary of the massacre in Beijing in 1989, this article is part of a special issue looking at the connexions between this event and the social, political and cultural life in Taiwan.

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