On Sunflowers, Sunlight, and Sovereignty

Politics, Taiwan, The Economy


The occupation, by several hundred students, of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan on March 18th, and the subsequent birth of what has been called the Sunflower Student Movement has inspired millions of people around the world. More importantly, for me, it has inspired a whole new generation of Taiwanese young people to take an active interest in national politics. After over two weeks, however, the time has come to be a little reflective about the movement’s hopes, goals and aspirations. As I see it, the movement highlights one of the central contradictions of progressive politics in Taiwan: the tension between sovereignty and democracy. Putting it this way may shock a few readers, since so many people who care about Taiwan tend to equate the two. Since there is so much ignorance and misinformation about the topic it is necessary for me to first make a few preliminary remarks about Taiwanese sovereignty. Those already familiar with the basic facts might wish to skip ahead.

Is Taiwan a Country?

If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, we have at least to consider the possibility that we have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands.1

For all intents and purposes Taiwan is a country and has been since the end of World War II. For the forty years before that it was a part of the Japanese empire and was moving towards greater autonomy within the empire when war broke out.

A better question is why Taiwan’s sovereignty is in question? This is where it gets tricky because, up until the end of martial law in Taiwan, both Taiwan’s ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) and China’s Communist Party (CCP) made the same claim: that Taiwan was part of China. But they made these claims for very different reasons. The CCP has long found Taiwan useful as a means for stoking Chinese nationalism, especially as part of a larger narrative about how China’s greatness has been continually thwarted by Western imperialism. For the KMT, however, the myth that they were the true government of all of China (a myth which got increasingly absurd with each passing year) served to legitimate a brutal dictatorship within Taiwan.

The myth that the KMT would retake the mainland” justified the militarization of Taiwan, including the presence of military officers in the schools, but it also allowed them to maintain a second myth: that Taiwan was a democracy. US supporters of Taiwan, like John Foster Dulles, liked to refer to the KMT as representatives of Free China.” In order for that to sound plausible the KMT, like the Japanese before them, had to allow local elections. They did allow some choice (between local KMT factions) at the local level, but at the national level the legislature was packed with aging representatives from each of China’s provinces. Many of them were elected in 1948 and didn’t retire until 1991.

For these historical reasons, the fight for democracy in Taiwan has long been associated with the fight for national sovereignty, aka independence.” Ending the myth that the KMT was the true representative government of all of China paved the way for multiparty democracy in Taiwan. This is important because, as much as the CCP tries to make the fight for Taiwanese independence about them, it isn’t really. It is about the fight for democracy within Taiwan where constitutional reform is an unfinished business and where the KMT has yet to divest itself of all the assets it seized from the Japanese, making it one of the wealthiest political parties in the world.

Which isn’t to say that the CCP isn’t important here at all. They are more threatened by pro-democracy independence supporters today than they were by laughable KMT ambitions to retake China by military force. Their territorial claims to Taiwan, while risible, are part of a larger expansionist strategy. They also play an important part in their strategy of using nationalism to legitimate party rule in the post-communist era. Moreover, with the increasing importance of trade and investment across the Taiwan Strait to Taiwan’s economy, the CCP is able to use its economic power to promote its political goals. In this, the KMT and the CCP find themselves as allies, and so concerned Taiwanese citizens once again see sovereignty and democracy as inextricably intertwined, but for different reasons than they did in the eighties.

Sunlight and Black Boxes

This gets us to the current crisis. . . well almost. The story actually starts a few years earlier. It is worth keeping in mind that many of the students now occupying the Taiwanese legislature were in diapers when Taiwan had its first democratic legislative election in 1991. Taiwan is often referred to as a young democracy,” but — like these students — it is growing up fast. As J. Michael Cole points out,

While the group has roots in the Wild Strawberries Movement, it could be argued that it truly cut its teeth with the Alliance Against Media Monopoly that formed in mid-2012. Go back to that era, and would will see many familiar faces, the same faces that are now inside the legislature.

The concern over media monopoly was sparked by the entrance into Taiwan’s news media of a major Chinese player: the Want Want Group. It is worth comparing this to similar concerns in America, where people have long been worried about the growing concentration of media ownership. Just six corporations own 90% of the media in America. But while in America this is primarily framed in terms of the threat corporate rule poses to democracy, in Taiwan it is framed in terms of the threat China poses to national sovereignty.

Something similar has happened now. In America, New Zealand and elsewhere there has been the same kind of concern over black-box negotiations associated with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that we see with the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) in Taiwan (which also wishes to join TPP). But in Taiwan it is impossible to escape from the fact that these negotiations are being conducted in China. As I wrote at the start of the occupation:

One of the first things the students did after entering the assembly was to rifle the drawers of one of the politicians involved in negotiating the deal and to take pictures of the name cards he had collected on his trips to China.

What we see here is that not all black boxes” are the same. It matters if the black box is in China or if it is in North America. While critics in America, India, and just about everywhere else are equally concerned about the negative influence of corporate money on politics, in Taiwan it matters a lot that this money is coming from China and it shapes both the nature of the protest movement and the reaction to it. In order to see this more clearly, it is useful to compare the occupation of the Taiwanese legislature to the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Comparing Occupations

While it is clear that the Sunflower Student Movement has gotten inspiration from Occupy, there are also important differences. For one thing, Occupy was marked by a refusal to make concrete demands, while the Sunflower protests are very specific in terms of what they are asking for. Secondly, Occupy was a global movement, while the Sunflower movement has had a very local focus. Third, while both the Sunflowers and the Occupiers were very diverse with no single ideological agenda, the symbolism and language of Occupy was clearly targeting very different targets. Let’s take these one at a time.

First, the refusal to make demands. One of the more articulate members of the Occupy movement was Aaron Bady, so I asked him what lessons he thought Occupy might have for Taiwanese students. He directed me to this 2010 piece by Bernard E. Harcourt:

Occupy Wall Street is best understood, I would suggest, as a new form of what could be called political disobedience,” as opposed to civil disobedience, that fundamentally rejects the political and ideological landscape that we inherited from the Cold War.

Indeed, this kind of political disobedience” was one of the most creative and refreshing things about Occupy, but when I see the Sunflower movement I see something that seems much more like classical civil disobedience, including much of the kind of Cold War-era rhetoric about the benefits of trade and importance of the political process that Occupiers rejected.

In response to a reddit AMA with some of the student protest leaders, in which one of them said we do not really think that it is about any ideology in particular,” a blogger by the name of Ah Mai recently wrote the following response:

How can one reasonably say that the basis for the actions—the occupation of multiple government buildings by force—and the demand for a new general constitutional assembly be not of any ideology in particular’?

As I see it there are only two ways to answer this, and both are ideological: the first way privileges the integrity of the existing constitution over the content of the protests; the second privileges the content of the protests over the integrity of the existing constitution. The first insists to the second: the constitution just needs a little upgrading, go home! While the second desists in arguing: the constitution no longer serves us, stand up! The antagonism that lies between the two is irreconcilable, otherwise protests would merely be pointless debates. Any attempt to mix the two only confuses itself.

Ah Mai goes on to say that the movement will need to confront the relation between justice and democracy” but I’m not so sure. While Occupy was criticized for having no particular demands, it did take a very strong stand on justice. The Sunflower movement, on the other hand, has very specific demands, and they are about democracy, not justice. (In my talk to students at a teach-in last Tuesday I framed this as a distinction between democratic procedures and democratic outcomes, but I like Ah Mai’s framing better.) It is true that many of the people involved in the protest are doing so because of concerns about justice, but those concerns are unlikely to be satisfied by the achievement of the movement’s demands.

The second difference between the movements is the global nature of the anti-capitalist movement, of which Occupy was only the latest incarnation, compared with the very narrowly local focus of the Taiwanese student protesters. I have already explained the historical reasons why the fight for greater democracy in Taiwan is closely tied up with issues of national sovereignty, but I think it is worth thinking about the limitations of such politics. It is perhaps true that sovereignty can sometimes be an effective tool promote democracy, I won’t debate that point here, but we must also acknowledge that it is also a tool for exploitation. By defining democracy in terms of national sovereignty one necessarily excludes non-citizen residents from benefiting from said democracy. Unequal labor practices are increasingly accepted because exploited workers are non-citizens and therefore considered interlopers not worthy of the same protections as domestic workers. When the US economic downturn of 2008 negatively impacted the Taiwanese economy, local workers were kept on without salary while foreign workers were sent home. Similarly, framing democracy in terms of sovereignty hides the ways in which Taiwanese benefit from the exportation of their environmental pollution and unsafe working conditions to China. Taiwanese laugh at pictures of Chinese smog, but not a small amount of that is benefiting Taiwanese companies.

The villains of the Occupy movement were brilliantly cast as the 1 percent” (although some argue that it really should have been the 0.01 percent,2 but that would have been less catchy). For the Sunflower Movement, it is Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jiu. The thing is, if Ma Ying-jiu steps down, someone else will take his place. It might even be someone from the opposition party (the DPP). After all, it was under a DPP president that Taiwan entered the WTO, paving the way for direct investment in China in 2002. The 0.01 percent, on the other hand, are here to stay. One recent study found that the wealth of the world’s richest 85 families was greater than that of the bottom fifty percent of the earth’s population. More recently, French economist Thomas Piketty has shown that that at least half the wealth of the world’s richest families is inherited, and that percentage seems to be increasing.

Defining Sovereignty Down

The protester’s demands are focused on reforming Taiwanese democracy in order to bolster domestic sovereignty. While I think these are important goals, I don’t see them as doing much to meet the concerns of the hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese citizens who have shown solidarity with the occupation. Nor do I foresee Taiwanese politics ever decoupling democracy from sovereignty, but I do see ways that sovereignty might be redefined in more progressive terms. For instance, Taiwanese Aborigines3 have long been fighting for greater sovereignty over their traditional territories. Taiwanese people have also been protesting government takeover of their land for development projects. By defining sovereignty down in this way it might be possible to decenter sovereignty so it isn’t simply associated with the idea of an independent Taiwanese state, but lies with ordinary citizens.

  1. Adams, Douglas (1987). Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. via Duck test — Wikipedia↩︎

  2. The great bulk of gains went to the top 1 percent. In turn, the bulk of the gains of the top 1 percent went to the top 0.1 percent; and the bulk of those gains went to the top 0.01 percent.” The (Very) Rich Are Getting (Much) Richer↩︎

  3. March 19, 2019 Update - Norms for translating the Chinese phrase Yuanzhumin” 原住民 into English have changed. Today I would write Indigenous Taiwanese” but I’ll leave the text as it was written at the time.↩︎