Revolutionary Content in the Sunflower Movement

by Wen Liu, World War 4 Report

On March 17, a group of students and citizens gathered in front of Taiwan’s congress, the Legislative Yuan, to protest against the passing of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) by the ruling party, the Kuomintang (KMT). The office of President Ma Ying-jeou, the Executive Yuan, had approved the CSSTA, and the KMT leadership said time for debate had expired, demanding a vote to ratify—despite public discontent. The sit-ins grew larger overnight. The next day, March 18, hundreds of protestors climbed over the fence, bypassing the police and entering the Legislative Yuan. About 300 protesters successfully occupied the Legislative Yuan chamber, while hundreds more surrounded the building, demanding immediate withdrawal of the CSSTA and establishment of a negotiation mechanism that will allow democratic oversight procedures for any treaty between Taiwan and China.

This was the beginning of the “Sunflower Movement” that unprecedentedly occupied the legislature until April 7—for 24 days—and mobilized millions locally and abroad. On the surface, the movement seems to be about procedural accountability, as emphasized by one of the main student coalitions, Black Island Youth. However, the movement has revealed multiple layers of social concern, including the stagnant economy, youth unemployment, worsened labor conditions, the KMT’s political dominance—and the question of Taiwan’s national sovereignty that has occupied Taiwanese public consciousness for decades.

The CSSTA, a liberalizing trade pact that opens up 64 Taiwanese service industries such as banking, telecommunication, healthcare, printing, film, and tourism to Chinese investment and businesses, not only would increase the competition of labor and the price of real estate in an already tough economy, but also could very likely advance China’s push toward political unification through economic coercion and domination. While the KMT has propagated a governing strategy of “economy first, politics second,” the movement has expressed the impossibility to compartmentalize the economic and the political in the Taiwanese context.

Beyond ‘student’ movement’: anti-free trade and national sovereignty
The occupation of the legislature can be seen as a response to the loss of legitimacy of the Ma administration, which has failed to address the public’s concerns over low wages, nuclear energy, urban gentrification, land grabs in the indigenous communities, LGBTQ rights, and state violence. These issues had inspired numerous waves of protest prior to the Sunflower Movement. The occupation in the Legislative Yuan was not an idiosyncratic event but an expression of accumulated discontents of the Taiwanese people over the dysfunctional political system, and an attempt to take back decision-making power from the state.

Therefore, it is simplistic to categorize the Sunflower Movement as a “student” movement, as it has mobilized diverse sectors of the populace and facilitated civic debates not only around party politics, but also on free trade and national sovereignty. The crisis sparked by the CSSTA makes explicit the question of who is the “we” under global capitalism. It becomes apparent that the Ma administration is willing to compromise Taiwan’s sovereignty in its aggressive pro-China policies, and that the government has its real interests in both the Taiwanese and Chinese corporations rather than the working people on the two sides of the strait.

After all, the free trade treaty only allows the maximal freedom of capital and the maximal exploitation of laborers regardless of nationality. Under this treaty, both of the Taiwanese and Chinese corporations will be allowed to expand freely across the strait and extract more surpluses through manipulating a sense of scarcity and competition in the transnational labor market. The contradiction is that the anxiety about losing sovereignty that has occupied the minds of many Taiwanese can in fact become the very mechanism that prevents labor solidarity across the strait.

Potential for convergence on the Taiwanese Left
Since the late 1980s, the leading opposition body, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), has appropriated nationalist sentiment for Taiwanese independence from China to win over its constituency. In the opposition against the dominance of the KMT, the DPP has mobilized a layer of the Taiwanese petite bourgeoisie that is pro-independence, but largely pro-capitalist and pro-US imperialism. In reaction against this pro-capitalist, nationalist conception of Taiwanese independence, the Left has been quite ambivalent on the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty. On the other hand, the possibility of building a socialist united front with the Chinese Communist Party has also been shattered as the Chinese state transitioned to a capitalist economy and full-blown marketization since the late 1970s.

In the Sunflower Movement, the Left’s intervention is critical, as the anti-capitalist bloc critiques the chauvinist anti-Chinese sentiment against laborers and immigrants from the mainland. This perspective from the Left stresses that the political line should not be drawn between the Chinese and Taiwanese working people, but instead between the capitalists and the laborers—either side of the strait. Nonetheless, this analysis is insufficient to resolve the contradictions within the current movement, which expresses the political and material crisis on the question of Taiwan’s sovereignty that can no longer be ignored.

The fact is that if Taiwan were to unify with China at this moment through the CSSTA, it would not be a unification based on working people’s shared interests, but would only strengthen the imperialist power and capitalist expansion of the People’s Republic of China. The Sunflower Movement has clearly shown that the Taiwanese people are not ready to comply with a forced unification under the current conditions.

If the possibility of a Leftist unification with China that was vibrant during the 1960s has been crashed by the rapid marketization of the Chinese economy in the past decades, the struggle against the trade pact makes apparent that the DPP-led pro-independence milieu is longer sufficient to absorb the discontents in the existing capitalist state.

Both the Leftist unification perspective and the pro-capitalist independence milieu are no longer cable of addressing the public’s deep-seated anxiety over the political and economic future of the nation. Beyond the reformist demands over procedural transparency, the youth in the Sunflower Movement have indeed pushed for a re-examination of the debate about “nation” in the Left and expressed the urgency for a third tendency beyond the orthodox conception of socialist unification as well as capitalist nationalism. The current struggle has opened up, at least temporarily, a space for the convergence of the two tendencies in the divided Taiwanese Left: pro-unification socialists and the emerging progressive current within the Sunflower Movement that is pro-independence and anti-free trade, if stopping short of embracing “socialism” because of ingrained anti-communist sentiment in the national history.

An alternative vision of sovereignty and transnational alliance
In the politics of protest against free trade, the movement presses the question of what kind of nation or community do we—the working people and youth in Taiwan—want to be. Does the collective “we” now struggling for freedom and self-determination include the Southeast Asian migrant workers, the Chinese laborers from the mainland, the unwaged and unemployed, the indigenous communities, and the LGBTQ communities? If the vision of an immediate socialist internationalism is beyond reach at this historical moment, what is the role of the “nation”—one that has been colonized by foreign powers for centuries (arguably including the KMT, with its ideology of Chinese nationalism)—in Marxist praxis? Can the vision of a sovereign land be a basis for us as a people to rebuild and reimagine our stolen future?

The anti-capitalist struggle does not end here but extends globally, as the KMT government is pushing for Taiwan to be part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) with the United States. The TPPA is the US government’s strategic plan to exert both its neoliberal economic agenda and military power in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as to ensure its competition against the Chinese imperialist alliances, such as the increasingly Beijing-influenced Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The traditional Cold War logic that looks to the US to protect Taiwan against a feared Chinese invasion no longer works, as the US has developed vast economic interests in China and shown no commitment to take the side of Taiwan. The Taiwanese anti-capitalist front should seek new alliances with other transnational struggles against both US and Chinese imperialism, such as the anti-military movements in the Philippines, in Okinawa, and in South Korea, to unite in opposition against the TPPA and US militarism.

The political content of the Sunflower Movement echoes the anti-globalization movement that began with the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, as well as the Occupy Wall Street movement that started in New York City in 2011. The forms of all three of these mass movements have responded to the insufficient strategies of the orthodox Left, and pressed more nuanced analyses of democracy, transnationalism, imperialism, and sovereignty. Most importantly, the revolutionary content of these movements does not merely lie in their negation of a political-economic system in crisis, but also in their demand for an alternative future of self-governance and new alignment of grassroots solidarity.


Wen Liu is a Taiwanese activist and scholar living in New York City. She has been involved in numerous social movements in the US and abroad, including Palestine liberation, immigrant labor struggles, and the US-Taiwan-China transnational LGBTQ movement. She is currently working on her PhD in Critical Social Psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Photo via 4AM.tw

From our Daily Report:

Taiwan gets a Maidan movement?
World War 4 Report, March 19, 2014

Taiwan: 100,000 march against nuclear power
World War 4 Report, March 10, 2014

Taiwan: indigenous villagers protest resettlement
World War 4 Report, Aug. 7, 2010

See also:

China’s Third Plenum Signals New ‘Paramount Leader’
from chinaworker.info
World War 4 Report, November 2013

by Pete Dolack, Systemic Disorder
World War 4 Report, October 2013

Special to World War 4 Report, April 19, 2014
Repriting permissible with attribution