The Public Nature of Civil Disobedience: Lessons from the Sunflower and Umbrella Movement

Written by Leon N. Kunz.

Image credit: Sunflower student movement in Taiwan by Artemas Liu/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

In March 2014, participants in the Sunflower Movement peacefully occupied the main chamber of Taiwan’s parliament to block the ratification of a controversial trade agreement with the PRC that they viewed as a threat to Taiwanese democracy. In September of the same year, protesters involved in Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement created street occupations to push for genuine democratic reform. In both cases, participants not merely occupied public space but claimed to engage in civil disobedience. According to the often-cited definition by liberal theorist John Rawls, civil disobedience is “a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done to bring about a change in the law or policies of the government.” To what extent did the occupations in Taiwan and Hong Kong conform to the dominant liberal civil disobedience script? What can we learn from the experience of the two East Asian movements?

In my EATS paper, I draw on several key elements of liberal civil disobedience identified by Robin Celikates to guide the comparison of the two movements. Drawing on the works of Rawls and other theorists, Celikates suggests that to count as civil disobedience under the dominant paradigm, protest acts need to be public, nonviolent, conscientious, appeal to the sense of justice of the majority, and stay within the bounds of fidelity to the rule of law. Critically discussing these requirements, Celikates shows that the liberal definition is too “sanitized” and “restrictive” to adequately capture the character of “civil disobedience as a genuinely political and democratic practice of contestation.” My comparison of the two East Asian occupations lends credence to Celikates’ criticism that the experience of social movements does not neatly conform to the liberal textbook ideal. It underlines that whilst civil disobedience is a highly public performance of democratic opposition, in practice it often involves greater degrees of spontaneity and confrontation than an overly restrictive liberal definition allows for.

Due to space constraints, my comparison of the two movements in this article focuses on just one of the elements identified by Celikates: publicity. Rawls, for instance, suggests that civil disobedience only covers action that is “engaged in openly with fair notice” and that is “not covert or secretive.” In the case of Hong Kong, the occupations were indeed prepared in a highly public fashion by a social movement campaign that lasted for over a year. In January 2013, renowned law professor Benny Tai published a controversial article. He proposed an occupation protest in Hong Kong’s Central district as a last resort for pressuring the authorities to allow genuine democratic reform. In March 2013, Tai, together with two other intellectuals, founded the so-called “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” campaign (hereafter OCLP) that stimulated a contentious public debate about civil disobedience, nonviolence, the rule of law, and democracy. Rather than immediately launching a disruptive protest, the campaign facilitated a deliberative process that involved supporters and ordinary citizens in so-called “deliberation days” and culminated in a civil referendum on political reform in June 2014. OCLP was built on the premise that the mere threat of civil disobedience could strengthen the pro-democracy movement in the political reform negotiations. The co-organizers hoped that an actual occupation protest could be avoided. However, the Chinese government demonstrated its refusal to yield to pressure by handing down reform stipulations on August 31, 2014, that were widely viewed as even more conservative than expected. Subsequently, OCLP reluctantly intensified preparations for an occupation protest scheduled for October 1, 2014, the national day of the PRC.

Even though OCLP had prepared for a pre-announced and highly disciplined sit-in, the actual occupation movement emerged sooner than expected and in a spontaneous fashion. On September 26, student groups without warning occupied a highly symbolic court adjacent to the Central Government Complex in the Admiralty district. The police responded forcefully and thereby triggered a mass turnout of indignant citizens. People who came to Admiralty to support the students, in turn, faced violent policing involving batons, pepper spray, and teargas. State violence backfired, creating a spontaneous large-scale mobilization that resulted in the formation of three occupation zones. The protests became known as the Umbrella Movement due to the umbrellas people used to protect themselves.

OCLP had meant to stage a pre-announced, organized, and controlled sit-in. But the actual occupation erupted spontaneously and horizontally as the outcome of popular discontent. Contrary to the original OCLP plan for a short-term occupation, protesters involved in the Umbrella Movement sustained their seemingly leaderless democratic experiment for 79 days before the final encampment was forcefully cleared. Even though the movement did not achieve the desired democratic reforms, the occupations of public space vividly demonstrated the democratic aspirations of large sections of the population.

Contrary to the protests in Hong Kong, the occupation of Taiwan’s parliament was not preceded by a similarly lengthy public debate over a possible enactment of civil disobedience. They were responding to the imminent conclusion of a review of the trade deal in parliament, a relatively small group of experienced activists secretly and hastily devised plans for a symbolic sit-in protest in the parliamentary chamber. The successful seizing of the space unexpectedly triggered a large-scale mobilization that enabled a sustained occupation. But even though the Sunflower Movement unfolded without public preparations for a symbolic occupation similar to Hong Kong’s OCLP campaign, the occupation of parliament did not emerge fully spontaneously either. It was the pinnacle of a range of protest movements that shook Taiwan during the Ma Ying-jeou presidency. Already from the time the controversial trade agreement was first signed in June 2013 on, a civil society alliance mobilized against it. The sudden occupation merely transformed the aggregate state of the anti-trade-deal movement. It created a centralized and highly public display of democratic opposition. Participants sought to cultivate an image of openness, peacefulness, and rationality that contrasted with the perceived “black-box”-fashion in which the controversial deal had been negotiated and pushed through parliament. The sustained standoff culminated in the peaceful withdrawal after 23 days following the promised shelving of the deal.

Comparing the two East Asian movements lends credence to criticisms of the dominant liberal conception of civil disobedience. It underlines that the experience of social movements points to the need for less restrictive definitions. Hong Kong’s OCLP campaign envisioned a symbolic protest that would have closely adhered to the liberal script. But the actual occupations in both Hong Kong and Taiwan were not narrow textbook applications of liberal civil disobedience. The two movements involved greater spontaneity, contingency, and disruptiveness than would be deemed appropriate under a strict liberal conception.

Leon N. Kunz is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS London. His thesis explores how participants in the Sunflower and Umbrella Movement conceived and practiced democracy to reflect on broader strategy, prefiguration, and deliberation questions. His research was supported by SOAS, the CCKF, and the CCS of Taiwan’s National Central Library.

This article was published as part of a Special Issue EATS 2021: Narrating Taiwan

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