The Sunflower, the Umbrella, and the Square: How Three Protest Movements in 2014 Foreshadowed Russia and China’s Foreign Policy Approaches in 2022

Written by Max Dixon.

Image credit: P1000310 by Kevin-WY/ Flickr, license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

The world in 2014 and the world in 2022 are miles apart. However, if one were to ask Ukrainians in Maidan Square, Hongkongers in Central or the Taiwanese occupying the Legislative Yuan in 2014, they would likely have recognised the world of 2022 as the culmination of all the fears that inspired them to action. Three protest movements emerged in 2014 in opposition to an increasing assertiveness and revisionism in Moscow and Beijing that sought to align the histories of Ukraine, Hong Kong (HK) and Taiwan with the modern reality of Russia and China’s borders. The fears enunciated in those protest movements and how they were policed offer disturbing parallels with the lived experience of Ukrainians, Hongkongers, and Taiwanese in the intervening years.

Unilateral Action

All three movements criticised the role of unilateral action by their leaders in developing ties with Russia, in Ukraine, and China, in HK and Taiwan. In Ukraine, this reimagining of the country vis-à-vis Russia emerged through President Viktor Yanukovych’s concerted effort to equate Ukraine’s national security and economic policy with the Russia of Vladimir Putin. Yanukovych shunned persistent calls for greater integration between Ukraine and the EU to bolster ties with Russia signing an agreement to sell Ukrainian bonds to Moscow in December 2013. The fallout from a seemingly unilateral decision to spurn an all but complete agreement with the EU and opt instead for closer alignment with Russia spoke to the increasingly clear authoritarianism of Yanukovych, most evident in Ukraine-Russia relations.

Similarly, in Taiwan, a Cross-Strait trade agreement laid the foundations for the Sunflower Movement. Taiwan’s KMT President Ma Ying-jeou had overseen a tentative rapprochement with China. Central to Ma’s efforts to enhance Cross-Strait relations was introducing a China-Taiwan trade agreement that sought to further economic ties between the two paramount Asian economies. Yet, following the agreements’ slow progress through the legislature, Ma took decisive action, forgoing the standard parliamentary review to ensure the bill’s timely passing. In a bid to closer ties economically with a state with whom Taiwan shares a contentious and predacious history, such unilateral action arose suspicions of dictatorial decision-making in the sphere of China-Taiwan relations. Moreover, that these economic decisions were underwritten by an authoritarian tendency, forgoing parliamentary input presented questions about the appetite in Moscow and Beijing to accept divergent policies, and governments, in Ukraine and Taiwan.

Finally, in HK, another example of this marginalisation of fledgling parliaments can be seen in 2014. Following the signing of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Basic Law was agreed upon. It was a mini-constitution to ensure that the post-handover HK’s leader and Parliament would be elected by universal suffrage. However, in June 2014, China’s State Council directly intervened in HK’s theoretically autonomous government (agreed in 1984) and announced that any such electoral reform would not be considered. Instead, the Chief Executive in 2017 would be elected from a pool of candidates approved by Beijing. As in Ukraine and Taiwan before it, in 2014, within the milieu of Russian and Chinese power emerged a tendency for unilateral action to safeguard the interests of Moscow and Beijing, shunning the emergent democratic systems of Ukraine, Taiwan and HK. This sudden authoritarian turn led to the protest movements, and their subsequent repression would foreshadow the experiences of Ukrainians, Hongkongers, and Taiwanese in the years since.

The Protests

Further similarities are also evident in the means of protest deployed by all three objections. The grievances aired by the protesters towards their governments and their decision to eschew democratic processes in favour of strengthening ties to the regional and historical influences of Russia and China sparked sudden occupations of symbolic sites in Kyiv, downtown HK, and Taipei.

In Ukraine, the protesters converged on Maidan Square. They protested against electoral corruption ten years before during the ‘Orange Revolution. The sight of EU flags waved in Kyiv’s Independence Square carried evident symbolic power. They emphasised young Ukrainian’s westward aspirations and the disconnect they held with Yanukovych’s eastern affiliation. Their occupation protest at Maidan Square sought to serve as a visual reclaiming of their democracy. The square hosting speeches and educational forums became a resource to discuss how Yanukovych was unilaterally undermining Ukraine’s democracy.

Similarly, in HK, the Umbrella protesters sought to strike at the heart of their city, occupying the financial infrastructure that had animated so drastically the city’s growth into a global financial hub. The protesters also set up educational stalls, homework clubs and speaker’s stages, with protesters calling for universal suffrage in the election of their leader as they occupied key roads at the heart of Hong Kong Island.

Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement occupied an equally important space in Taiwanese life; the chamber of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. Their peaceful occupation at the heart of power in Taiwan paralysed Ma’s Cross-Strait trade-agreement progression. This agreement was pushed through the house without the promised ‘review’ stage. It spoke directly to the importance they attributed to the hard-fought democratic processes achieved by their ancestors against decades of authoritarian repression. Indeed, The Sunflower Movement saw protesters risking police violence to physically safeguard a democracy they believed was being eroded through unilateral action by Ma.

Repression and its implications

All three occupations were peaceful in their actions yet met resistance. However, the manner of that resistance offers an insight into the years that would follow. Political scientist David Bayley’s study of policing systems around the world outlined that the actions of the police “determine the limits of freedom in organised society”. In this sense, the approach taken by police forces in Ukraine, HK, and Taiwan in 2014 revealed the reality of freedom in those societies. This assertion is directly reflected in the post-protest societies of Ukraine and HK today.

In Ukraine, the protest was met with swift, brutal repression, which included the use of live ammunition by the ‘Berkut’ riot police, leading to 108 deaths according to UN estimates. In Ukraine, the peaceful protest and the subsequent violent repression underscored the fragility of Ukraine’s security, both interior and external, with Russia invading Crimea later in 2014. Moreover, the eruption of a vibrant, pro-Western protest movement in the heart of Kyiv was unpalatable for Yanukovych and his ally Putin. It thus was crushed with a disturbing level of violence by Ukrainian police and ‘rebels’, which in retrospect, offers a damning insight into the contemporary motivations of Russia in Ukraine and their willingness to crush a divergent pro-European Ukraine.

Further police violence materialised in HK in 2014, where the government’s response underscored a political determination to redefine HK’s position vis-à-vis China and extinguish an increasingly distinct Hongkonger identity. For the first time since British colonial rule, teargas outraged the watching Hong Kong public and led to further protests. The gas which immobilises protesters was combated bravely by the umbrellas that lend their name to the movement, yet the determination of the police to use the gas served to restrict the possibilities of physical protest in post-handover HK, once framed as a ‘City of Protest’. Further violence was evident in the police’s repression of the 2019 anti-China protests. Finally, the fragile illusion of HK’s autonomy was shattered when Beijing installed the National Security Law that criminalised many tenants of free speech and single-handedly dismantled HK’s civil society. In this sense, the choking gas used in 2014 to repress the Umbrella Movement manifested into the legal and political assault on the city since.

Yet, in 2014, the response to the Sunflower Movement’s occupation diverged from the responses seen in Ukraine and HK. Moreover, the occupation of a private building of enormous political significance in Taipei could be seen as greater motivation for coercive policing in evicting the protesters. Yet, violence on the scale seen in Kyiv and HK never emerged. Senior Taiwanese Premier Jiang Yi-huah ordered police to evict the protesters. However, his call wasn’t heeded, with the Legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng actively promising to shield the protesters from police violence. The police reciprocated the protesters’ peaceful tactics. Where policing determines the extent of freedom in society, in Ukraine and HK in 2014, freedom was shown to be incredibly shallow when it infringed upon the development of connections with Russia and China. Yet, in Taiwan, a resilience to democratic protest became apparent, and it is this freedom that has contributed to Taiwan’s emergence as Asia’s premier democracy, according to The Economist. The post-Sunflower electoral success of the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen has marked a new era for Cross-Strait relations, with China embarking on coercive diplomatic and military campaigns, targeting Taiwan’s diplomatic allies and frequent military aircraft airspace incursions. The Sunflower Movement’s success has consequently seen China pursue an assertive approach.

Therefore, the grievances, tactics and repression of the protest movements outlined here enable a clear foreshadowing of the approaches of Russia and China that would follow. Yet where Ukraine and HK saw their political systems collapse in their post-movement societies, the strength of Taiwan’s democratic institutions and values prevailed. This resulted in negotiating with the Sunflower Movement’s strains and the calls to repress it, which have seen a stronger Taiwan emerge.

Max Dixon is a recent graduate of International Relations at The University of Portsmouth, having previously studied at the University of Warwick. He has produced research for MPs and foreign policy think tanks focusing on Chinese foreign policy approaches in Hong Kong, Taiwan and in the South China Sea. His current research interests include UK-Taiwan relations and the impact of state deployment of tear gas on protesters in East Asia.

Welcome to join the webminar on ‘Taiwan-Hong Kong (Dis)connection’ chaired by TSP at University of Nottingham, on 19th of May, 17:30-19:00 UK time, eventbrite registration link:

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