The following article is originally published by our partners at Duke East Asia Nexus
TRANSCRIPTION: Rui Wang
TRANSLATION: Emily Feng
Emily: What are the Sunflower students protests about? The protests seem a little scattered, and even from the [English] news, I do not fully understand what the protestors’ requests are.
Liao Yun Zhang : Their protests have several aspects. At first, they were protesting the Taiwan government services trade agreements signed with the Chinese government, because the whole process of legislative review of trade agreements in this agreement was not very clear. The reason (the protests) broke out was because the KMT legislators Ching-Chung Chang, in a very short time, within 30 seconds, quickly passed the first review and second review. There were supposed to be three reviews, though of course, this fact is disputed. At this time, the students had already started the sit-in protest outside the Legislative Building, so when they heard of the news [of the treaty ratification], they very quickly decided to storm the building and occupy the legislative conclave.
So (these events) happened against the background of the “black-box” operation of this bill, the opaque procedures, and other controversies. Although the legislators organized many public hearings, they effectively still haven’t achieved community consensus, and there still remains a lot of controversy.
Emily: So they are still protesting this “black box” opaque policy?
廖云章: At first, it was students and a few NGOs that protested, but after they occupied the Legislative Building, the message spread, and the government also sent a very large number of police to surround the protestors. The protestors’ behavior attracted more peoples’ sympathy, understanding, and support. The students were here (the Legislative Building), police surrounded the students, and then there are more people surrounding the police. This morning they have already retreated having already maintained the occupation for 21 days. Their main appeal is to repeal to the controversial bill and then develop new regulations between the two sides (China and Taiwan) so that in the future, similar issues will have further review by oversight mechanisms and not be handled like this way again.
Emily: My understanding is that at the beginning, the students were protesting the trade agreement, but then their demands evolved?
廖云章: At first, they requested a repeal of the treaty. Later (after their discussion while occupying the Legislature), several more requests emerged. They are not really changes, but more nuanced and developed strategies and discourse around their main goal, which include repealing the trade agreement, create new regulations, and requiring the parliament and the president to come out and apologize. But you can say that this is series of requirements and nothing special, though perhaps they are now asking for more things than what they did previously. Because in the whole process, they are also constantly in talks with the government in the hope that there can be some negotiation. But these talks have all collapsed, including talks with the president and the premier that have broken down.
Emily: : Do you think this protest movement and the American Occupy Movement have similarities?
Liao Yun Zhang: There are some similarities and also some differences with the U.S. Occupy Wall Street movement. For example, the Occupy Movement also discussed the problem of wealth inequality, because although the [Taiwanese] protests are primarily protesting the trade agreement, they also worry that the passage of this treaty will help some big businesses in the short term but quickly hurt small and medium business practices and vulnerable workers in the long term. This concept and Occupy Wall Street has some resemblance.
But the most exceptional thing about the Taiwanese occupation, and according to my understanding of occupy movements around the world, is that they are very orderly. I myself have been to the site several times, and it is very orderly and very clean. In the course of the occupation, they hosted a lot of internal education, forums, and discussions. Including the orderly maintenance of the protests and resource management, each person at the site has been well-cared for. They even maintained the area outside of the protests and were very careful to recycle. This kind of order caused people to be very sympathetic to the movement, which is why they could fundraise a lot. There was lot of free food on site, free coffee, and a variety of things people sent endlessly. They also facilitated “self-education” inside the protests, and many students said they learned more there than from their school textbooks. And When they returned [to school], they even challenged the teacher and asked them what opinions they had toward the current political situation.
Emily: You said the students just retreated today. What do you think the future prospects of the protests will be?
Liao Yun Zhang: They now have a slogan – “we exit, but the seeds are sown.”
Chang Cheng: Now it seems to have been changed to “let flowers bloom everywhere.”
Liao Yun Zhang: They want to put this positive energy that they have accumulated after twenty-one days to return to their own “fields to sow” and spread this energy after leaving the Legislature.
Shucao: What do you think Sunflowers Movement’s impact on the Chinese government will be?
Chang Cheng: Are you saying what will the effect be on the Chinese trade agreement? Right now it looks like there won’t be much change, because it has already been signed.
Shucao: But will the movement have an effect on future negotiations?
Chang Cheng: There is a Commodities Trade Agreement pending in the future (the current contested one is limited to service industries). Although I do not intend to speculate what the [Taiwanese] government would do, theoretically speaking, if there were strong domestic backlash, the Taiwanese government would be more unyielding when negotiating with the Chinese government, in order to cater to the public opinion. But we cannot guess right now what the approach of the Ma (Ma Ying-jeou, President of Taiwan) government will be. So my feeling is that things will probably be the same, because according to the Ma government all along, the trade services agreement being protested would bring more benefit than harm. This may be true, with one side capturing the gains and one side suffering the losses. Right now, it’s those who would lose that are protesting, but the ones that stand to gain, notably big corporations, already had influence and are tied up with the Kuomingtang Party. So my predictions favor this faction; the national trade agreement will still remain. It’s not as if the mainland will ignore Taiwan just because of there are domestic quarrels within Taiwan; Beijing shouldn’t write Taiwan off because it wouldn’t sign [the agreement]. Therefore, future trade goods agreements and investment protection agreements will not end, and there will not be much change.
Liao Yun Zhang: Actually, because the majority of public opinion in Taiwan is that Taiwan must be economically open, they do not oppose free trade. You cannot engage with the whole world with the exception of China. This is just to say that after the Sunflower Movement, when signing future agreements of this kind with China, it is necessary to take into consideration factors beyond just economic ones.
Emily: What have journalist’ involvement been like in the Sunflower Movement?
Chang Cheng: The two of us are not directly involved in participating in the movement. Before there was even a report that “pro-unification” journalists and pro-”independence” journalists were split pretty clearly. Of the pro and opposition factions, among the pro faction there is the Wang Wang China Times media group which owns the “three”: China Sky, China TV, and the China Times. On the other side are those that support Taiwanese independence, and these two positions are very clearly defined. One side says the student movement is trouble-making, while the other says they are heroes. These two viewpoints appear in Taiwanese media simultaneously. Apple Daily is notable because it does both television and print media. They are relatively independent but don’t deal with the issue of independence or unification; they only deal with money (laughs). On this issue they’ve been more inclined towards the student movement, saying this is a good thing, supporting them, and in a pretty emotionally provocative way. Yesterday a former classmate wrote a piece of commentary. If we’re talking about mainstream media, most of the reports have been rather superficial while other reports accuse the protests of selling out Taiwan. They are quick to label, and once you label, it makes it easy to report. You are either with the Chinese Communist Party or you are for Taiwanese independence. Consequently, the commentary has been rather basic without much analysis. Really, what is only worth reading about the movement is in individual media.
Liao Yun Zhang: He means more individual media, which is not truly social media. This is more like blogging.
Chang Cheng: These commentaries are relatively more in-depth and will not necessarily be distributed in mainstream media. They’re individual commentaries, very in-depth but also very tiring to read (laughs).
Liao Yun Zhang: They’ll write articles six or seven thousand words long, for example.
Chang Cheng: Because this protest is concerning Taiwan, there are many people reading these commentaries. Everyone wants to understand, and we all do not fully understand what exactly is what trade services is. These individual commentaries will be used as “服冒热饮.” (fumao reyin).
Liao Yun Zhang: There is a famous Taiwanese medicine that is called “服冒,” (fumao), so now a lot of people say, “I have a cold, but I will not take “服冒.”
Chang Cheng: ““服冒” is to treat colds. The media’s connection to this…I think the media is just like that, very much as it is in the United States. There is a lot of superficial media which very quickly came out with a news report and published Twitter and Facebook news. I think this thing has been dragged out long enough so there aren’t many people reading this media anymore and find it a bit boring. Because there are enough people that became involved and are paying enough attention, many experts began to write some deeper stuff. With so many people sitting out there, after a while there is not much to do, and they began to care more. They began protesting because they were enthusiastic and impulsive, and not really caring what the protests were about, ran over, sometimes to join friends. After sitting there for three whole days, other than chatting or playing cards, they will still probably read some stuff, which is a good thing. So this kind of individual commentary I consider true media.
Liao Yun Zhang: We have encountered some students who entered the legislature on the first day and began documenting what was happening daily inside. Their perspective is entirely of one insider as they narrate what is transpiring. These kinds of individual media reports are probably more in-depth than the fragmented reports of mainstream media, though these individual media reports are completely subjective and opinionated.
Chang Cheng: I think mainstream media behaved just the same way as it did regarding other events. Their tones are either completely in support or completely opposed to the movement. When the protests didn’t develop much, the mainstream media started to report on the “Sunflower Goddesses.” They were these pretty girls wearing very hot clothing, and everyone continuously reported on these girls. Then began to say the male leader of the protests was very handsome.
Emily: What meaning does the “Sunflower Student Movement” have? What is the significance of the name? Is there a deeper meaning?
Chang Cheng: It mirrors the chant to follow the sun.
Liao Yun Zhang: It was because there was someone inside the meeting that sent a sunflower inside the legislative building which set the tone for the movement.
Chang Cheng: Sunflowers have always been very positive flowers. They represent always facing the sun, towards the light. This movement at its very beginning was specifically to oppose “black box” policies and in general, secretive and obscured things, so they found a flower that faces the sun.
Chang Cheng: I think sunflowers are just like that. In Taiwanese social movements, sunflowers have always been…
Liao Yun Zhang: …been an image, during parades they will always take out a type of flower.
Chang Cheng: And because a good number of people in support, they was a florist shop owner who sent many sunflowers
Liao Yun Zhang: I think they sent 5,000 sunflowers.
Chang Cheng: Ever since the “Jasmine Revolution,” everyone wants to have a flower. Taiwan had a “White Lily” movement. In 1989, the year of Tiananmen, Taiwan also had a similar student movement (1990.3.16-1990.3.22). At the time, it was called the “White Lily Flower” [movement]. Actually six years ago Taiwan had a “Wild Strawberry” [movement].
Liao Yun Zhang: The “Wild Strawberry” concept came about, because at that time, Taiwanese youth were criticized for being “strawberry people.” They said young people were very pretty but very fragile; as soon as you pinched them they wilted. So Taiwanese youth came out and said, “We are strawberries, but we are wild strawberries. We have power and are not a kind of rotten strawberries.”
Chang Cheng: This why we have always had this inheritance of plant and flower-named revolutions. Jasmine flowers and white lilies are concepts inherited from the West and the Middle East.
Emily: Do you think that in Taiwan’s future, students will have stronger political participation after this protest? In the United States, there are some that criticize young Americans saying that they do not vote and do not pay attention to politics. Are Taiwan’s youth the same?
Chang Cheng: I think after this time there will be a bit more participation, because this event’s influence on Taiwan was actually pretty deep; there were 10,000-20,000 people sitting in front of the legislative building for twenty one days, with many coming from other places to Taiwan. Additionally, at the end of the year there will be elections.
Liao Yun Zhang: There are seven elections in Taiwan at the end of this year. Thus, there are many people saying to “leave and sow the seeds,” which is to go back to your community and use the movement’s momentum to change your local politics. I think that this year’s voter turnout and participation rates should be higher.
Chang Cheng: The short-term impact will certainly become larger. I think this year’s elections and the 2016 presidential elections will probably be affected. Because of this wave of disturbance, we will think carefully about who to vote for. But if what you are asking about is the long-term, I feel that just like the American electoral system with the one person one vote system and media, in the end the person who presents themselves well in media will be elected. Everyone finds this very boring and useless. Eventually, the enthusiasm for politics will slowly decrease. This time, I felt that because there was a connection with China, Taiwan was made very nervous, but China didn’t have much reason to be nervous while Taiwan complained. So this year end, next year’s elections will be impacted and young people will go vote, but afterwards, most people will definitely not feel like there was much change.
Chang Cheng: I just watched the Tiananmen Square documentary, “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” and heard the students talk, they also did not believe that their government would use violence, though in Taiwan we believed it because we have always said the mainland is bad (laughs). I am more surprised that 25 years ago, like Chai Ling, Wang Dan, when they protested in Tiananmen Square, they sat there, they said when the army came to drive away, they didn’t think it was a big deal. This is exactly the same as what the Taiwanese students thought.
Chang Cheng: Some say that the government intentionally drew the students to do this kind of thing, but this is difficult to verify. They also say that this is a way to control the protests; they let you come in, then surround you, and then they are justified to beat you because you broke the law. What I was just saying, similarly, was that these students really believed in their government, and they believed the People’s Liberation Army were the on the people’s side. So they didn’t think when the army came to drive them away, much physical harm could be caused. In Taiwan, the students are also very believing of the government.
Liao Yun Zhang: Right, the Taiwanese students even attached to the police small pieces of paper, saying, “oh police, you have also suffered.” They actually did things like this.
Chang Cheng: They did this during the Tiananmen protests
Liao Yun Zhang: I later saw that in the 1989 protest on the mainland, student also gave the police food, did they not?
Chang Cheng: That’s true, but I find the most interesting is that the film (“The Gate of Heavenly Peace”) actually speaks clearly to the fact that of those who sat-in to protest, there were actually a lot of different factions, and everyone’s ideas were not the same.
About the Participants
Liao Yun Zhang (廖云章 ) is the acting editor-in-chief at the Lihpao Daily.
Shucao Mo (莫书草) is a senior at Duke University.
Rui Wang is a junior at Duke University and co-director of the China Leadership Summit.
Emily Feng (冯哲芸) is a junior at Duke University. She is president of the Duke East Asia Nexus.