Written by Ming-sho Ho.
Image credit: Lai Pin-yu’s Xizhi Service Office. By Solomon203 via Wikimedia Commons, license: CC BY-SA 4.0 ,
At 9 pm on March 18 in 2014, scores of student activists stormed into Taiwan’s national legislature intending to stop the next day’s third reading of the Cross-Strait Service Trace Agreement, a free-trade deal with China that could have permanently absorbed the island nation into China’s economic orbit and opened the door for mass migration to Taiwan. Young protesters originally thought the police would quickly evict them. Yet, unexpectedly, their seemingly headlong action ushered in a 24-day legislature occupation, precipitating a political crisis. However, supporters quickly swarmed outside the occupied legislature using their pre-existing activist network and digital media sophistication, and student protesters’ meticulously well-mannered behaviour (garbage collecting and resource cycling) earned popular support. As the then ruling party, Kuomintang, was mired in deep disunity, student protesters effected a peaceful withdrawal, ceremonially claiming the victory of their action.
Most of the time, citizens just follow the existing rules and thereby reproduce the current rules of the game. Yet, there are some exceptional moments when they opt for collective defiance, and during these unusual periods, history thickens, and the transformative power from below is unleashed. These are the rare moments when people finally can make their own history.
After the Sunflower Movement, Kuomintang suffered a major blow by consecutively losing the 2014 local election and the 2016 presidential and legislative election. The independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the national power in 2016 and was successfully re-elected in 2020, partly due to the overwhelming support from young voters. As the Taiwanese have chosen to leave a China-centred economic circle, such a decision appeared vindicated by the unforeseeable changes in the wake. Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement was inspired by Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement six months later. As the trade war between China and America exploded in 2018, Western democracies were no longer sanguine about the old liberal doctrine of free trade. The outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 further indicated the fragility of an international order in the face of a revisionist power. Directly or indirectly, Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement stood at the beginning line for many global geopolitical shifts afterwards.
Aside from its international and national impact, the Sunflower Movement created many biographical changes among its young participants. In Taiwan’s student movement history, the nearest comparable case is the 1990 Wide Lily Movement, a weeklong students’ sit-in in Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Square which ended peacefully and hastened the nation’s march toward democracy. Ho Jung-hsin’s book, published in 2001, reflected on the whereabouts of the then student leaders, which still remain the most authoritative account till now. Probably because of the author’s background, the book focuses on the subsequent career of National Taiwan University graduates. From his portraits, ex-student activists interviewed in the book either established their academic careers or chose a political path. Regardless of their different life stations, former activists remained faithful to their erstwhile idealistic vision and continued to make a better Taiwan.
But what about the Sunflower generation activists, who are mostly in their late twenties and early thirties currently? The Wild Lily generation politicians, such as Lin Chia-lung (former Minister of Transportation and Communications, 58yr.), Chen Chi-Mai (Kaohsiung City Mayor, 57 yr.) and Cheng Wen-tsan (Taoyuan City Major, 54yr.) are among promising successors to President Tsai Ing-wen. Are the younger ex-Sunflower activists poised to replicate the same pattern?
There are some differences in terms of the career prospects for two generations of student activists. First, with very few exceptions, Wild Lily veterans who chose a political route almost ended up with the DPP. In contrast, ex-Sunflower Movement participants had more choices, including New Power Party, Taiwan State building Party, Social Democratic Party, Green Party, and so on, as the so-called “third force” carved out a space in the post-Sunflower Movement landscape. Although these smaller parties are resource-poor, they provide alternative avenues to mainstream politics. Secondly, the Wild Lily generation had a more favourable timing in the 1990s when the DPP was expanding locally and nationally, with increasing positions to be filled in.
In contrast, ex-Sunflower activists encountered a rather matured DPP, whose senior politicians sponsored their offspring to join politics. As such, in several primaries, they had to compete with the so-called “the second-generation greens” to win the nomination. Thirdly, while the older generation activists did not jump into electoral politics immediately, as they tended to pursue a professional career for some time before becoming a politician, the younger ones apparently had no qualms about the election. There were already some Sunflower candidates in the local election of 2014, around eight months after the legislature occupation. In 2018, I found 93 movement-spired local councillor candidates from smaller parties. In the current 113-seat legislature, one DPP lawmaker Lai Pin-yu (29 yr.), hailed from the Sunflower Movement decision-making core, was elected in 2020. In terms of electoral participation, Sunflower Movement easily surpassed Wild Lily Movement and consequently bequeathed a more broadly-based enthusiasm for politics.
Academia is another commonly seen professional choice for former student activists. In Taiwan’s current higher education, there is a visible cohort aged about fifty, who have more or less background in student activism of the late 1980s. It is easier for the Wild Lily generation to obtain admission from United States’ top schools. With the expansion of Taiwan’s universities in the 1990s, it is not that difficult to land in a secure tenure-protected position. Lin Chia-lung, for instance, received a doctoral degree from Yale in 1998 and taught for a while at National Chung Cheng University. Yet, fewer former Sunflower participants decided to embark on this path by comparison. Admission to an elite doctoral program has become more challenging with skyrocketing applicants from China. Also, with the shrinking university student population and positions and more demanding research requirements for university professors, academia is apparently becoming less appealing for student activists.
Naturally, there are more former Sunflower participants scattered in different arenas, such as social enterprises, NGOs, or local communities, pursuing their dreams and at the same time spreading the seeds of erstwhile youthful idealism. It remains to be observed how their pursuit will remake Taiwan in the future to come.
Ming-sho Ho is a Professor at the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University and the Director of Research Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, Ministry of Science and Technology (Taiwan).
This article was published as part of a special issue on “The Sunflower Movement Eight Years On”