Table of Contents

On the evening of March 18, 2014, a group of Taiwanese students stormed the national legislature to resist a free trade deal with China. Unexpectedly, their hastily planned action evolved into a twenty-four-day confrontation. The so-called Sunflower Movement, named after the floral gift sent to protesters as a symbol of hope, won widespread public sympathy in Taiwan. Thousands of supporters camped on the streets surrounding the legislature, which made it difficult for the government to evict the intruders. Yet the government refused to accept demands from the protesters to postpone the free trade agreement. Seeing that the movement was losing steam, student leaders opted for a voluntary withdrawal and claimed to have achieved partial success.

After the protests, many of Taiwan’s activists shifted their attention to institutional forms of politics, joining existing political parties or establishing new ones, taking up staff jobs in the government, or running for public office. Other Sunflower activists preferred to work through advocacy groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), or social enterprises. Even though many activists rejected the political pathway, institutional politics became the most visible pathway to channel the movement’s energy after ebbing of the protests. The proponents of this political strategy claimed it represented a way for social movements to enter the political agenda.

Protests and the Fallout

The Sunflower Movement represented the culmination of protests and activism that had gathered momentum since the return of the conservative Kuomintang (KMT) in 2008. More and more young people and students had joined political campaigns regarding environmental concerns, labor rights, media reform, forcible eviction, and so on.1 Younger Taiwanese also joined the ranks of protesters partly because of their generation’s economic plight, which has entrapped them in wage stagnation and informal employment.2 Moreover, China’s growing “sharp power” in Taiwan was clearly felt in the steady erosion of press freedom, academic freedom, and other individual political rights. The Sunflower Movement became a political trigger point precisely because the disputed push for trade liberalization with China was perceived to benefit big corporations at the expense of individuals. Consequently, many citizens feared that closer economic integration with China would compromise Taiwan’s political autonomy and self-governing status.

Ming-sho Ho
Ming-sho Ho is a professor in the Department of Sociology at National Taiwan University.

The Sunflower Movement had far-reaching political reverberations. Humiliated by internal divisions and its inability to solve the political crisis, the KMT suffered back-to-back electoral defeats. The independent-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidency and the legislative majority in a landslide in January 2016. Prior to this turnover of power, movement activists won policy victories in the areas of nuclear power and high school curriculum, and the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage also attracted support. In the first two years after the Sunflower Movement, political campaigns led by young people proliferated across Taiwan, mostly focusing on constitutional reform, legislature supervision, the amendment of referendum law, and other issues. Aside from this visible activism, other parallel attempts at the local level by Sunflower activists took place under the public radar. For example, some young Taiwanese activists experimented with community-supported agriculture through environmentally friendly farming initiatives, community organizing at the grassroots level, and social enterprises.

Existing research on social movement indicates that a widespread and intensive episode of contentious politics often bequeaths a prolonged political legacy, although it may take years or decades to observe the long-term impacts.3 In the case of Taiwan, the post-Sunflower campaigns suffered from a “liability of newness.” Idealistic aspirations have evaporated under the economic imperatives of satisfying basic needs. Frustration and disillusionment have grown, driving people to devote their attention to private concerns. Over time, the memory of the Sunflower Movement gradually disappeared from public debate. As it has done so, the Sunflower activists have split, as they have opted for different postprotest ways forward.

The Lure of Political Institutions

In recent years, the wave of protests that have sprung up around the globe have demonstrated a clear divide between institutional politics (understood narrowly as represented by political parties and elections) and the participatory and spontaneous ethos that energized the movements on the ground. Protesters have taken to the streets mostly because they are fed up with failures of political leaders, either from lifelong dictators or incompetent elected officials. Yet even though demonstrators clearly highlighted their dislike of political leaders, they often failed to articulate a common vision or platform, let alone organize an alternative political organization.4 Seen in this comparative light, Taiwan’s young Sunflower participants appeared unusual in that they were attracted to institutional politics in droves, and there were few who criticized their career choice as being a capitulation to the establishment. In fact, in the history of Taiwan’s student movements, such pronounced preference for a political career is atypical. In the wake of the 1990 Wild Lily Movement, which played a critical role in expediting the nation’s transition to democracy, it took a number of years for former student activists to join the DPP and become full-time politicians, whereas some Sunflower activists became political candidates only seven months after the end of legislature occupation.5

There are several reasons for this development. First, Taiwan’s civil society is largely free of many of the ideological tendencies that often define protest movements in the West. Whereas certain key groups of Western activists—including anarchists in the United States and the autonomous movement in continental Europe—insist on direct democracy and regard participation in institutional politics as self-defeating cooptation, Taiwanese activists have a different institutional perspective. Since the end of authoritarian martial rule in the mid-1980s, social movements have mostly allied with the political opposition, DPP. With the DPP’s increasingly centrist turn in the 1990s, dissatisfied movement activists have turned to elections in search of other political routes to affect the government’s decisionmaking process. Starting in the late 1980s, there have been successive waves of new party organizing on the part of labor and environmentalist activists, indicating that Taiwan’s social movement community has continued to put faith in the country’s democratic institutions.6

Second, even though the Sunflower Movement proceeded as a radical act of civil disobedience that paralyzed the functioning of a vital state organ for more than three weeks, the participants were not inherently antidemocratic as the movements detractors claimed. Protesters did not occupy the legislature because of a fundamental distrust of representative democracy; on the contrary, they believed that lawmakers had abandoned their duty of reviewing the free trade agreement in a transparent and responsible manner. In spite of the protesters’ indignation of the incumbent’s lukewarm responses and some episodes of police force, there were no incidents of vandalism. The participants took care to maintain a civil and peaceful presence, and meticulous efforts were spent on waste collecting, recycling, and sorting.

Third, even before the Sunflower Movement, several efforts had been made to channel protest activism into electoral politics in Taiwan. In early 2014, the Taiwan Citizen Union was formed with the collaboration of movement activists, though its organizing was upended with the outbreak of the Sunflower protests. Later, its participants split into the New Power Party and Social Democratic Party, both active players in electoral politics in subsequent years. Furthermore, Green Party Taiwan, founded in 1996, revived its electoral activities in 2008 after a prolonged period of quietude. Its resuscitation owed much to newer agitations, which attracted an influx of younger participants to the party.7 DPP politicians watched the protest movement closely and intended to recruit some of the most promising young activists. Tsai Ing-wen, who led the party for six years out of its eight years in opposition, was not a typical DPP politician; she had a technocratic background in trade negotiations, which endeared her to young political aspirants. Without factional support within the party, Tsai appeared eager to promote young people to consolidate her basis. These and other preexisting forces helped draw young activists into the realm of party politics.

Finally, a push factor particular to the Sunflower participants influenced the movement. As mentioned above, the Sunflower Movement and its related protests were in part driven by a keenly felt sense of economic deprivation among young Taiwanese. Upon graduating from school, young activists generally have sought employment that is more or less consistent with their ideological leanings. Ex-student activists have frequently looked to academic positions as a popular career choice. Many of Taiwan’s Wild Lily Movement participants, for example, ended up earning doctoral degrees and becoming university professors. Nevertheless, with the contraction of Taiwan’s higher education and the increasing difficulty of obtaining a secure full-time position in academia, academic careers became less attractive. In a 2016 interview, a Sunflower activist spoke about their three possible career options: academia, social movement work, or political work. He pointed out that the first is now difficult to enter and the second offers only low-paid jobs with undesirable working conditions.8 This activist later was elected as a DPP councilor in Taichung City in 2018.

Another interviewee, who later emerged as a New Power Party councilor in Miaoli County, candidly revealed his anxiety about their future options. He was highly conscious of his “advantage of being young,” which would “expire” once he turned thirty years in a few years. He claimed not to have a “special proclivity for political cleanliness,” and he would be fine with any political party affiliation as long as it was not the KMT or its allies.9 In short, a political career emerged as a suitable choice because other alternatives were seen as less rewarding. Moreover, the boundaries between the established DPP and other newly formed outfits often were fluid. Young aspirants chose their party affiliation largely for personal reasons, even changed party membership as the need suited them.

The World of Political Positions

Institutional politics covers a wide-ranging array of positions, which include being hired by politicians, appointed by ministerial or local executives, or elected by popular vote. Aides or secretary positions are entry-level jobs that typically do not require specialized skills and, therefore, were attractive options for Taiwanese activists who lacked credentials but were keen to be involved in politics. Several interviewees, for example, revealed that at least ten Sunflower activists were directly involved with Ing-wen’s presidential campaign in 2016. In the new legislature that first sat in February 2016, around a dozen Sunflower activists worked as aides to DPP lawmakers. After the inauguration of the DPP presidency, former student activists also found their way to jobs in the Executive Yuan, the Presidential Office, and the National Security Council, arguably the pinnacle of the state apparatus.

Although secretary positions are the most readily available option for former protest movement participants looking to enter institutional politics, appointed jobs with decisionmaking power were hard to come by because most Sunflower activists were too young (mid-20s to mid-30s in 2016) to have the necessary professional credentials. The few exceptions included two young activists who became the department heads in the DPP’s national headquarters before launching their electoral campaigns, as well as one activist who briefly served as the director of the Changhua County Cultural Affairs Bureau.

Sunflower activists who entered party politics often described themselves as “political workers,” and they have been willing to share the firsthand experiences of their new careers.10 Nevertheless, there was a clear hierarchy of desired political positions, with elected public offices at the top of their revealed preferences. Similar to the cultural penchant for entrepreneurship in the world of small business, many activists interviewed for this study saw elected positions as truly working for themselves—a status marker for bona fide politicians—whereas secretarial jobs meant only a temporary stint working under supervisors.

The road to elections differed between those who joined the DPP and those who joined newer or smaller parties, such as the Green Party Taiwan, New Power Party, and Social Democratic Party. As an established political party, the DPP relies on competitive primaries to select nominees, which created formidable challenges to young contenders who lacked existing family or factional ties to the DPP. Even though some DPP elites might have been interested in grooming the party’s future leaders, there was another hurdle. The scions of the DPP’s elder politicians (the so-called second-generation Greens) had come of age, and they became primary rivals for the Sunflower activists because they could compete equally on the grounds of being young and reformist. If Sunflower activists were able to secure the party nomination, however, they generally managed to win votes from DPP supporters. The DPP did not field any candidates related to the Sunflower Movement in the 2014 local election and the 2016 legislative election. In 2018, however, four Sunflower activists successfully received DPP nominations by defeating second-generation Greens in their primaries, and they later won their elections to become local councilors for the first time.

It was much easier for candidates to obtain nominations from small parties, but the downside was that candidates had to manage campaign financing on their own without a large party fundraising infrastructure, and they struggled to gain voters’ attention because their affiliated party was not a household name. A Sunflower activist who joined the 2016 legislative election on the ticket of the Green Party Taiwan, for example, revealed that she was the top spender among the party’s candidates, having spent 2 million new Taiwan dollars (US$66,700) on her own campaign, mostly from donations or her own personal funds.11 In the end, she failed in the election, and her difficulties illustrate how cash-strapped small parties are able to provide only limited opportunities for candidates.

Movement-Inspired Parties and Candidates: From 2014 to 2018

The legislative elections in 2016 witnessed the rise of the “third force”—an imprecise but widely circulated term used by the media to refer to the New Power Party, the Social Democratic Party, and Green Party Taiwan—all representing electoral attempts by Sunflower participants and their allies. In the end, the New Power Party obtained five out of 113 seats in the national legislature and emerged as the third-largest party in Taiwan. Less attention has been paid, however, to the local elections, which were a more realistic point of entry for Sunflower aspirants. In particular, the election of intermediate-level councilors of counties, cities, and autonomous municipalities was an ideal testing ground for first-time contenders because most of the seats (907 in 2014 and 912 in 2018) were selected in multiple-member districts that favored small-party candidates, who needed to obtain only a sufficient percentage (not necessarily the majority) of the popular vote. The following table presents the participation of Sunflower-inspired parties in these two local council elections.

Table 1: Movement-Inspired Party Candidates in Local Councilor Elections, 2014 and 2018
Parties or Political Forces Candidate Numbers, 2014 Elected Candidates, 2014 Candidate Numbers, 2018 Elected Candidates, 2018
New Power Party 40 16
Green Party Taiwan 9 2 10 3
Social Democratic Party 5 1
Wings of Radical Politics/Radical Party 5 0 12 0
Trees Party 8 0 5 0
People’s Democracy Front 14 0
Obasang League 21 0
Total 36 2 93 20

Notes: Data from the Central Election Commission website (http://db.cec.gov.tw/, accessed March 6, 2019), arranged by author.

Wings of Radical Politics (2014), People’s Democracy Front (2014), and Obasang League (2018) were not formally registered as political parties, and their candidates officially ran as being “nonpartisan or without party affiliation.”

This table does not include Labor Party (2014 and 2018) or Left League (2018) candidates because both outfits and their activists were not involved in the Sunflower Movement.

The 2014 local elections, which occurred shortly after the conclusion of the Sunflower Movement, witnessed a surge in movement-related parties’ attempts to secure victory in the elections. These parties fielded thirty-six candidates in total, a record high in Taiwan’s history. Two Green Party Taiwan candidates were elected, marking the party’s biggest electoral victory in its eighteen-year history. Four years later, with the national ascendency of the New Power Party, as many as ninety-three candidates joined the competition for local councilors, and twenty were successfully elected, including sixteen from the New Power Party, three from the Green Party Taiwan, and one from the Social Democratic Party. The number of candidates standing for these parties illustrated the heightened enthusiasm for electoral participation, which demonstrates that institutional politics remained an appealing arena for young aspirants who thought they could both establish a professional career while simultaneously retaining their commitment to the movement.

The twenty newly elected representatives of movement-related parties, together with four from the DPP, marked the Sunflower Movement’s arrival into Taiwan’s political landscape. And these new entrants shared a similar outlook of progressive politics, owing to their shared experiences in movement activism and camaraderie forged during the preceding years. It is true that these individuals stood for only a small minority of the local councilors in the nation (twenty out of 912, or 2.2 percent), but they nonetheless represented the most promising, articulate individuals who likely would excel in politics in the years to come. It remains to be seen, however, whether these rising stars are able to reshape Taiwan’s future.

The surge of electoral activities on the part of movement-related parties has helped empower those who were hitherto underrepresented in institutional politics. Even though women made up only 30.4 percent of nationwide local councilor candidates, they were a slight majority among those nominated by these new parties (forty-seven out of ninety-three). In particular, the recently formed Obasang League (obasang means senior women in Taiwanese) fielded twenty-one middle-aged mothers in these elections, with an electoral platform that emphasized child welfare and environmental protection. These new parties also facilitated young people’s participation in the elections. The nationwide average age of candidates was 50.4, whereas the average age of those nominated by movement-related parties—with the exception of the Obasang League—was 33.8. Moreover, prior to the 2018 election, Taiwan did not have any LGBT elected officials who had openly revealed their sexual orientation. The Green Party Taiwan has been the most persistent champion of LGBT rights by nominating lesbian and gay candidates in the past. In 2018, both the New Power Party and the Social Democratic Party also nominated openly lesbian candidates to be elected to Taipei City Council. In short, these new parties emerged as a more open platform for nontraditional candidates.

Generally speaking, these movement-spurred parties campaigned on a platform that leaned toward the progressive end of the ideological spectrum, with an emphasis on environmental protection, labor rights, LGBT issues, and others. Most of them were generally supportive of Taiwan’s independence, but the Radical Party chose to emphasize Taiwanese identity and, more specifically, the threat from China, whereas the Obasang League and Trees Party (Taiwan’s environmentalists) focused more on livelihood issues. The New Power Party dominated the field, not only because of its wider recognition through its presence in national politics but also because of its access to an annual subsidy of $37 million new Taiwan (US$124,000).12 Some parties made pre-election efforts to coordinate nominations in order to avoid competing in the same district. In the end, however, the New Power Party decided to proceed on its own, whereas the Green Party Taiwan, Social Democratic Party, and Radical Party instead joined a tripartite collaboration. In hindsight, several New Power Party candidates could have been elected had there been no such intramural conflict.

Conclusion

The 2018 local election signaled the further absorption of Sunflower activists into the institutional arena of party politics. Five years ago, these individuals were angry protesters who disrupted the national legislature; now they are elected officials in local legislative bodies. This political sea change indicates the permeability and resilience of Taiwan’s democracy, which was able to incorporate its erstwhile radical dissenters into the institutionalized political process, rather than drive them further toward political extremes.

Does the postprotest road to mainstream politics help social movements to place their own demands in the political agenda? To some extent, the answer is yes. Though a minority, New Power Party lawmakers were willing to take a more progressive stance on issues such as same-sex marriage, nuclear power, and labor protection, thereby enhancing pressure on the DPP government. Those who chose to enter the DPP faced more constraints as members of the governing team. Nevertheless, they were vocal in their demands for reforms. For instance, when the DPP showed hesitation in promoting marriage equality in December 2016, the former Sunflower activists launched a campaign to challenge the conservative voices within the party.

That said, the turn to mainstream politics does not appear to have exhausted the self-organizing capabilities on the part of civil society, as some young activists chose to remain in NGOs. Jennifer Lu of the Social Democratic Party, for instance, joined the 2014 legislator election and received 10.7 percent of the vote—a respectable result for a first timer. Yet Lu decided to work as a full-time campaigner for marriage equality rather than participate in the 2018 local election, in which she had a competitive edge. The New Power Party also failed to recruit young activists in the labor movement because these activists decided to prioritize union organizing. In short, electioneering was one way to continue the movement commitment, but it was not the only postprotest pathway.

The political ascendancy of Sunflower activists, however, is clouded by the landslide victory by the conservatives in the same election. The KMT made a remarkable comeback by taking fifteen out of twenty-two local executive seats, whereas the incumbent DPP took a severe beating and saw its share of seats dwindle from thirteen to six. In terms of the popular vote, the KMT increased its share from 4.9 million (41 percent) in 2014 to 6.1 million (49 percent), whereas the DPP lost nearly 2 million votes (8 percent). In the national referendums, opposition to same-sex marriage and nuclear energy supporters also triumphed over progressive alternatives.

Do these results signal the coming of a conservative resurgence in Taiwan’s politics, and by extension, the end of the Sunflower Movement’s afterlife? It is possible that some activists will feel the need to return to more contentious civic action outside mainstream politics. Unlike in some countries, Taiwanese activists have made a relatively smooth transition from protest to politics, but they have not been able to stop a political turn that goes against most of their aims. So far, these young politicians have shown no sign of wanting to revert to protest activism. In the wake of the DPP’s electoral debacle, more than eighty younger party members, including the four newly elected local councilors, signed a statement to remind the next party leader not to abandon the proreform values and to resist “populist temptations.”13 In this light, it seems that these former activists who decided to embrace mainstream politics were inclined to continue to work within their chosen institutions—at least for the time being.

Ming-sho Ho is a professor in the Department of Sociology at National Taiwan University. He researches social movements, labor, and environmental issues. He published Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement (2019).

Notes

1 See Dafydd Fell, ed., Taiwan’s Social Movements Under Ma Ying-jeou: From the Wild Strawberries to the Sunflowers (London: Routledge, 2017).

2 Ming-sho Ho, Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2019), 74–79.

3 Paul Lichterman, The Search for Political Community: American Activists Reinventing Commitment (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996); and Doug McAdam, Freedom Sumer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).

4 See Asef Bayat, Revolution Without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2017); Manuel Castells, Network of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age (Oxford: Polity Press, 2012); David Graeber, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (New York: Allen Lane, 2013); and Ivan Krastev, Democracy Disrupted: The Politics of Global Protest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

5 For a review of Wild Lily activists’ career patterns, see Jung-hsin Ho, Xueyun shidai: zhongsheng xuanhua de shinian [The student movement generation: A boisterous decade] (Taipei: China Times Publisher, 2001).

6 Ming-sho Ho and Chunhao Huang, “Movement Parties in Taiwan (1987–2016): A Political Opportunity Explanation,” Asian Survey 57, no. 2 (2017): 343–367.

7 Dafydd Fell and Yen-wen Peng, “The Electoral Fortunes of Taiwan’s Green Party: 1996–2012,” Japan Journal of Political Science 17, no. 1 (2016): 63–83.

8 Interview, August 17, 2016.

9 Interview, August 24, 2016.

10 See for example, Jennifer Lu et al., Zhengzhi gongzuo zaiganma: yi qun nian qing shi dai de li xian gao bai [What is political work really about? The confessions of a young generation’s adventure] (Taipei: Locus Publishing, 2016); and Sixian Yu et al., Qingnian ruzhen shier wei zhengzhi gongzuozhe qunxiang lu [The youth joined the foray: A profile of twelve political workers] (Taipei: Zhuliu chuban, 2018).

11 Interview, May 11, 2016.

12 See Liberty Times, September 7, 2018, https://news.ltn.com.tw/news/politics/breakingnews/2544322.

13 For the full text, see “Qingnian minzhu huifang zhenxian: women shi yiqun qingnian zhengzhi muliao xiang weilai de minjindang zhuxi tiwen” [Youth Democratic Frontier defense: A group of young political aides ask questions of the future DPP chairman], News Lens, December 20, 2018, https://www.thenewslens.com/article/110480.