The Sunflower Student Movement: Successful Protest, Failed Evolution
United Daily News Editorial (Taipei, Taiwan, ROC)
March 18, 2015
Executive Summary: Last March 18, opponents of the STA occupied the legislature. Today is the one year anniversary of that occupation, commonly known as the Sunflower Student Movement. The occupation impacted people. It sent political, social, and economic shockwaves throughout Taiwan, and led to the year end KMT election debacle. Today, on the one year anniversary of that event, we can evaluate it calmly and thoroughly. We can reflect on both the Sunflower Student Movements' successes and failures.
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Last March 18, opponents of the STA occupied the legislature. Today is the one year anniversary of that occupation, commonly known as the Sunflower Student Movement. The occupation impacted people. It sent political, social, and economic shockwaves throughout Taiwan, and led to the year end KMT election debacle. Today, on the one year anniversary of that event, we can evaluate it calmly and thoroughly. We can reflect on both the Sunflower Student Movements' successes and failures.
If one considers only the force and impact of a social movement, the Sunflower Student Movement was undoubtedly a success. It attracted attention from society, and established solidarity with the public. It forced those in power to make concessions. The participants demonstrated organizational skills and the ability to make transnational connections. They enabled outsiders to see the new generation's vitality and creativity. They successfully motivated the younger generation to confront the difficulties it faces. The large turnout among younger voters during the year end election, and the government's new found respect for the cyber army, were positive developments. The student movement inspired youth in Hong Kong, and ignited the flames of the Occupy Central movement as a spillover effect.
But if one considers Taiwan's democratic evolution, the student movement was a shock to the system, one that inflicted grave damage to the rule of law on Taiwan. This "youth" and "student" social movement won public sympathy. But the occupation of the legislature crossed the line for social protest by trampling over the rule of law. It laid siege to a police precint station, and turned a deaf ear to appeals to reason. Under the guise of a moral crusade, it endangered the public through institutional paralysis. A closer look tells all. Many of those directing the student movement from behind the scenes, were members of the DPP inner circle. The students may not have felt used. But subsequent developments showed that they were. The DPP effortlessly reaped the fruits of the student movement, as evidenced by its nine in one election victory. Was this not a setback for democracy?
The 3/18 student movement was dualistic in nature, due to a combination of accidental and inevitable circumstances. At the macro level, recent youth protests around the world have all been staged events. The Sunflower Student Movement on Taiwan was of course influenced by the color revolutions in North Africa and Ukraine, and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US. Angry youths felt the need to speak out. At the micro level, the recent economic downturn led to wage stagnation. Soaring housing prices led to a new generation suffering from "relative deprivation". As a result, the STA became a fuse that ignited younger generation collective frenzy.
But comparing the 3/18 student movement to the "color revolutions" is wrong and dangerous. The nations that underwent color revolutions were all authoritarian or totalitarian regimes which have not held elections for several decades. Taiwan is different. It may be an immature democracy, but its system is sound. In any event, the mobs that occupied government buildings in protest, trampled over democracy and the rule of law. Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York were evicted on grounds that the park needed cleaning. The Sunflower Student Movement occupied the legislature for over 20 days. Wang Jin-pyng used the occupation as a means of political retaliation, because Ma Ying-jeou accused Wang of influence peddling. Otherwise the occupation would have been impossible. Mobs occupied the Legislative Yuan, then the Executive Yuan. For them, the government and authority did not exist. Had the Executive Yuan not been cleared that night, Taiwan might well have descended into chaos. Do people really wish to see the nation brought to that level?
Taiwan society has long been happy to see people stand up and fight for their rights. The general public has long been compassionate towards the disadvantaged. But the Sunflower Student Movement resorted to illegal occupations. It took advantage of student naivete to make extreme political demands. It undermined public authority and endangered social order. It made rational consideration of the issues impossible. The legislature is responsible for determining national policy. The mobs brought the legislature to a standstill. They then began debating national policy on the streets outside the legislature. The irony did not escape public notice. If people really think this is the way a democracy should operate, then Taiwan's democratization efforts over the past 20 years has been in vain.
So how should the public respond to the Sunflower Student Movement? The honest response is to seek solutions for low wages, high unemployment, and high prices inside the system. The honest response would be to consider the Executive Yuan sponsored "four methods to increase salaries" and Wen-Je Ko's proposal to build more social housing. A more hypocritical response would be to pay lip service to cyber army demands, but do nothing to resolve their predicament or make substantial improvements. The worst response possible would be to hail a few of the leaders as heroes, encourage them to continue their struggle, profit politically from their efforts, then ignore the younger generations' dilemma. Those who have participated involved in youth movements in the past, should recognize a selfish politician when they see one.