The Soil Where the Sunflowers Grew and Withered.

Written by Ren-Wei Chang 

Image credit: Sunflowers by Steve Elliott/Flickr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0

Why Should We Remember the Sunflower Movement in 2022?

Despite the narratives or images we see, social movements are not always romantic fairy tales. Instead, they must gradually accumulate power based on realistic structural conditions and then challenge the existing order at a critical point. This means that if we are to review the sunflower movement and be inspired by it, we must examine the soil those flowers grew in. We also need to pay attention to what has happened since 2014 and not just focus on that year alone. The sunflower movement didn’t simply “happen.” It resulted from a range of historical events and trends that are no longer replicable. 

Indeed, although the sunflower movement is often understood as a powerful response to the so-called “China factor” – or a sense of Taiwan coming under threat – student movements in Taiwan have a long history and have been gaining momentum since 1980s when groups working on environmental and political issues became increasingly intertwined. Perhaps the more immediate antecedent to the sunflower movement is found in the 2007 movement to protect the housing of people with leprosy whose residency was under threat of demolition. This movement saw student movements becoming increasingly entwined with local groups and civil society and helped to provide them with necessary resources, and created a model for integrated activism that became important over the following years. It also allowed activists to gain the experience needed to allow for the occupation of the legislative yuan in 2014 .

Many believe that the success of the sunflower movement in 2014 must be related to the development of social media. This logic might sound intuitive as social media was increasingly prominent at the time and has often been credited with promoting the Arab Spring protests in 2011. However, this often leads to a false impression of the Sunflower movement as a sudden outpouring of protest following a few simple posts. Another example of this overstatement of the mobilising power of anti-China posts on the internet can be seen in common interpretations of the “Wild Strawberry Student Movement” of 2008. This was regarded as a reaction against the “Chinese factor. ” The movement began to gather momentum on PTT through BBS technology. But researchers have found that the weak connections established via online relations alone could not sustain rallies or help protestors develop follow-up movement strategies. This “disorganised organisation” enabled through social media is fascinating, but its influence is easily overstated. 

From Student Rights, and Justice, Environmental Protection, and Gender Equality 

After the wild strawberry student movement failed, these participating students registered and established organisations on campus and started offline activities. After 2010, their organisations began to communicate and cooperate with each other again because of the student rights movement.

And they participated in diverse issues of social movements outside the campus, such as the anti-nuclear demonstration held every year since 2011, especially against the project of the Fourth Nuclear plant in Taiwan after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. (we could notice that the sunflower symbol had already been here.) Or, rallied in 2012 against an urban renewal project and supported union strikes, and initiatives to promote same-sex marriage. 

An important event occurred in the series of anti-expropriation movements that began in Miaoli County since 2010. In August 2013, the Ministry of Internal Affairs was occupied for two days. It was regarded as an exercise for occupying the Legislative Yuan.

With these diverse issues of social movements, civic groups had more opportunities to collaborate. Student movement organisations have also expanded their connections via these protests. Based on this cross-fields movement network, some NGOs and students began to organise the opposite movement of service trade agreement in 2013.

The Success and Failure of the Occupation of the Legislative Yuan

With a mobilisation basis for high-intensity action and online media suitable for rapid mobilisation, in March 2014, when the KMT decided to pass a service trade agreement forcibly, citizen groups could plan government occupation.

However, the street protests over the past years had already taken a tole on the power of student movement organisations. Therefore, although the protesters could enter the chamber of the Legislative Yuan and the wider civil society supported the demands of the operation, the protesters lacked the planning capacity for a long-term occupation, likely due to exhaustion. Moreover, the KMT government chose to remain silent initially, which made it difficult for the protesters trying to get people to withdraw from the chamber.

With poor communication and distrust, the temporary group in the chamber could not achieve their demands. This has led to other actors who wanted to break the deadlock and instead called for the occupation of the Executive Yuan.

After President Ma used drastic methods to suppress the protesters in the Executive Yuan, civil society became more supportive of the movement. However, the struggle has become more distant for these students. In fact, after the end of March, not many students chose to stay in the Legislative Yuan or even continue participating in the “movement” (this was also because it was the time of their midterm exams). Instead, students returned to their respective campuses and assembled in other cities.

At the end of 2014, the KMT lost its ruling advantage in the local election. This was regarded as a consequence of the sunflower movement. In 2016, DPP won the presidency and secured a majority in the chamber. The “Service Trade Agreement,” the focus of the dispute, did not continue the review process.

Although the “Cross-Strait Agreement Supervision Law,” which was one of the demands in the movement, was also not implemented, the Chinese government stopped economic and trade exchanges after the DPP got power.

 Looking forward

After the DPP seized power in the 2014 local elections and the 2016 presidential and legislative elections, the protests caused by the KMT and the influence of the Chinese factor have gradually decreased. The number of social movements has also reduced. As a result, cooperation between student movement organisations and civic groups is not as frequent as it used to be. Moreover, fewer connections have meant tougher challenges. Protesters’ power eventually weakened when the government announced bills to extend working hours and the construction of more coal-fired power plants. Moreover, in ensuing referendums held by conservative groups to ban same-sex marriage and continue using nuclear power plants, the NGOs went back to fighting alone on different issues instead of cooperating.

The worst part, perhaps, is that Taiwanese society relies on Facebook and LINE as its main source of news and discussion for public issues. However, both platforms have become increasingly politically polarised after the DPP lost the local elections in 2018. As a result, DPP supporters and civic groups are gradually drifting apart. Once the demands of social movements contradict the policies of DPP, key opinion leaders on social media will strongly condemn and mobilise to cancel donations to those organisations because they “do not pay enough attention to China’s threat.” This makes the supporters of the DPP angrier and more singular about the range of issues they care about, leaving the party with a less diverse support base. 

This practice of purging dissent has continued after 2020. Maybe the soil that nourished the growth of sunflowers at the beginning is getting barren. All solidarities have melted into an air of anger and fear. It is a critical point for observations in the future. In short, the sunflower movement did not happen randomly. It resulted from decades and years of student collaboration, network building, and growing civil society. This was the ‘soil’ that let the sunflowers grow. If we hope to see another protest like the sunflower movement in the future, we need to ensure that we maintain the soil and keep it fertile for new growth. After all, the erosion of democracy by totalitarianism often begins with a fragile civil society. We cannot let the soil go barren.

Ren-Wei Chang has a masters degree in Sociology from National Sun Yat-sen University. He currently works at the Open Culture Foundation

This article was published as part of a special issue on “The Sunflower Movement Eight Years On”

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