The student parliament: reflections on the Sunflower movement

A student holding a placard in support of police, denouncing hooliganism and calling for reasonable resistance.

The Taiwanese students movement against Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement with China was hardly a radical movement in any way, it nonetheless politicized a lot of people and perhaps opened up space for a more radical critique of existing relations. The following are a few reflections and impressions of events that took place in Taipei from middle of March to beginning of May.

The occupation

During a demo on Tuesday evening, 18th of March, a group of students, professors (mostly from National Taiwan University) and other activists, who demanded that the government backs out of the service and trade agreement with China, forced their way in the building of the Taipei Legislative Yuan (Taiwan Parliament). With the support of the crowd outside the building they managed to hold on through the night. Next evening, when I first visited the area, crowds were occupying both roads parallel to the parliament, a stage and sound system was already set up. On the south road (Jinan lu), after a speech by one of the professors, a student came on the stage politely asking for a hundred volunteers to follow him to block the police who were trying to make some kind of a cordon into the government complex. Some few hundred people followed and pushed the cops to the crossroads. There was some scuffling with the police, but the whole thing was more of a mass persuasion then a fight; with the protesters shouting "Police, retreat!" (警察退后) and "If you don't make a move we won't make a move!" (警察不動我們不動). One could say that on the side of the police all attempts of evicting the parliament were mostly done in a more or less haphazard and very casual way. As far as their presence on the streets is concerned, in the first few days until Sunday (March 23), there very few police to be seen and they didn't really do much besides stand in front of the main entrance to the parliament. The police did cut electricity and water and tried to raid the assembly hall at first. Though the parliament building was mostly in control of the students, eventually some kind of agreement was reached with the police who were actually allowed to get in some parts of the building unobstructed. Until Monday 24th the police were not really using much force and there was also a constant rhetoric coming from the speaker podiums of police being there to protect everybody and just doing their job, and thanking them for their trouble (警察辛苦) and being generally very sympathetic and genial to the cops who had to stand long hours without rest. All in all, probably more cops received medical treatment due to exhaustion than injury. There were even students holding placards asking the people not to curse at the cops. Nonviolence was preached on almost all the podiums and every time a confrontation could happen the speakers would try to calm the crowd.

On Friday (March 21) one of the students wrote on the outside wall of the parliament in big stenciled letters: When dictatorship becomes reality revolution is a duty (當獨裁成為事實革命就是義務). There would at times be some leftish rhetoric coming from the speakers, but generally what one would hear from the sound systems would be bullshit of the liberal and nationalist kind. The crowds on the street would give a big round of approval when the speaker would say something like "we are just concerned citizens not DPP's assassins". What was coming from the stages was a lot of talk about democracy and peoples rights and not wanting Taiwan to change as if status quo was something ideal. The same went for the slogans that were shouted or written on banners and posters. They mostly focused around repelling the service trade agreement, on denouncing the “traitor” and “Chinese lackey” president Ma Yingjiu and the need to defend democracy against an autocratic government. A very popular slogan on t-shirts, stickers and posters which also conveyed the dominant ethos was: “We ourselves will save our own country” (自己國家自己救). The most often used slogan was "Back out of [the] service [and] trade [agreement]" (退回服貿) which was also the main demand of the movement. The demand stipulated that the review of the service and trade agreement had to be made via a new monitoring body for all further China-Taiwan relations. For the oppositional DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) the movement turned out to be a useful proxy to get their foot in the door regarding further negotiations whit mainland China.

A few words on the composition

I can say that on the first evening after the occupation (March 19th) people round the parliament were mostly young people/students, professors and activists, but there were more and more older people as it got late. So the people whit regular jobs would join in the after hours. The crowds got bigger during the first weekend (March 21-23), because there were a lot of supporters who came from other parts of Taiwan. But most of the people who came there would just walk around or listen to the speeches so the whole thing looked like a big political night market at times (but with much more arbitrary rules then a real night market). What I mean is that students imposed a lot of stupid regulations like the one that there had to be special permanent corridors for ambulances and delivery and literary nobody was allowed to "jaywalk" in this corridors. For most people who came there occasionally the experience of the whole thing would be that of passively listening to speeches and lectures (professors actually held lectures in front of the parliament), some of the people in the crowd, mostly students, would sit in the middle of the streets, while others were slowly moving on the sides of the street, with empty emergency corridors in between. So getting around was very frustrating and took a lot of useless meandering. In short, although the streets round the parliament were at times very congested, the whole thing was not that big and expect for the curriculum of a few universities the general functioning of city life and capital accumulation were not affected in any significant way.

For the protesters on the streets first few nights after the occupation were vigils. A lot of people spent the nights outside on cardboard, a few open canopies were set up. Only later did people start bringing tents and a permanent camp sprung up on Jinan lu. Very soon there were portable toilets on all the streets around the parliament, also distribution points for giving out free food, water and blankets, info-stands, battery charging stations, and first aid stations, and even some kind of a kindergarden at times... The movement also had an security detail that had a uncanny air of a proto-faschist militia. They were a group of camo waring machos calling themselves the EMT (Emergency Medical Technicians). These young men took upon them selves the task of “selflessly protecting the students”. I'm not sure how many of them were professional medical technicians, but on the streets round parliament they acted as some kind of security force protecting the student camp and occasionally beating up troublemakers.

The supplies students were using came mostly from donations by individuals who brought them them selves or had them delivered. In the three weeks of the occupation a more or less permanent community not based on monetary exchange, but relying on free distribution of material obtained from donators, was established. There were even a few small food vendors that would bring their stalls and give out free snacks. There also seemed to be a lot of support for the movement from other small businessmen. There were occasions when bakers donated hundreds of loves of bred, and the Sunflower (太陽花) movement actually got it's name after a florist donated a thousand sunflowers to the students.

Though I'm sure that the experience of living in an environment whit this kind of relations made an impression on a lot of people, I would say that for most students the movement was a communitarian experience which did not necessarily lead to any kind of an internationalist outlook or critical questioning of everyday life. Furthermore, if this was for many students and young people their first firsthand impression of a social movement it must have been, whit all the self-policing and arbitrary decision making, a very ambiguous experience.

Geography of ideology

Slowly a kind of a geographic segmentation of ideological spectrum which persisted during the whole of the occupation was established along the roads round the parliament. The occupying group (students, activists and professors who were actually in the parliament) were mostly addressing people on the north entrance (Qingdao lu) of the parliament. Near the intersection of the of Qingdao lu and Zhongshan nan lu you could occasionally find the Green party and also a small group of trotskyists (CWI) selling their magazine and calling for a general strike. Some fractions of DPP (民進黨), separatists and T-shirt vendors settled along Zhongshan nan lu.

There were also two debate corners. The one on the east part of Qingdao lu that was administered by NGOs engaged round issues of the handicapped and people suffering from occupational diseases. The corner had a strange name, it was called Peoples parliament (人民國會). Though the moderators there talked about direct democracy, they had really unorthodox notions of what that could be, at times they seemed to encourage people to get into politics and run for office, and debates would digress in to pointless discussion on pros and cons of parliamentary and presidential system or even phantasmic suggestions that "the Taiwanese citizens" should directly negotiate with the Chinese government. There was also a lot of moralizing mystification going on. For example, a debate about occupational disease and industrial pollution turned in to moralizing about lack of ethics among some employers who were described as black hearted bosses (黑心老闆). There was even a remorseful retired entrepreneur who described himself as a former black hearted boss and urged everybody not to "think only about money" when doing business.

The other debate corner, located on the west end of Jinan lu, which eventually grew in to a separate fraction of the movement and an occasional party place, was called Jianmin jiefang qu (賤民解放區) or Pariah/outcast liberation space in English. The corner was based on critique of "student vanguardism" dominating the movement and also turned out to be the only space where an internationalist agenda was discussed. It was first organized by some students and NGO activists who were displeased with the direction the movement was taking and also tried to challenge the notion of the "citizens" movement. It attracted a lot of students and mostly young workers that were disaffected with the students in the parliament whose decision making procedures and dealings whit authorities were perceived as obscure and problematic. This corner had a clear procedure for deciding what was going to be discussed. Although the quality of discussion varied they occasionally had some interesting and very long debates. One could say that this corner opened up a space where the generation of 22000NT (about 550 euros or the amount a university graduate could expect after finding a job) could discuss their pragmatic concerns about their present situation and their future through critical analysis of global economy. It also opened a space where individuals and groups with similar sympathies could engage in further discussion.

The black box

A few words on the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) or Black box service trade agreement (黑箱服貿)as it is popularly know due to its opacity. The whole thing was supposed to open up whole of Taiwan to mainland Chinese capital in sectors including management consulting, advertising, market research services, technical testing and analysis, consulting services related to science and technology, packaging, printing, exhibition services, mailing list editing, telecommunication, land transport of courier services, film import quota, construction services, environmental services, hospital services, social services, travel agency services, operation of theaters and sports facilities, sales and marketing of air transport services, storage and warehousing services, freight transport agency services, washing and cleaning services, hairdressing and other beauty services, funeral parlor and crematorium services, insurance, banking, and securities services. Both parties, Taiwan and China, made 64 and 80 commitments respectively. The agreement covers various aspects from commitments of market liberalization to promises of more transparency. The most immediately affected by this treaty would be middle class owners of small and medium businesses which would have to compete with Chinese firms. This would of course translate in to indirect pressure on the workers wages and working conditions. So the whole movement can not be simply understood as a liberal/nationalist response to integration with China or as an defensive movement of soon to be decomposed self employed and small employers and middle class since the trade agreement would carry on to affect the rest of working class as well. But the rhetoric in the media, the speaker podiums and by protesters themselves was often not focused on Chinese capital but Chinese migrants - the phantasmal millions of Chinese and their families that will flood Taiwan if the treaty was accepted. Furthermore, the inflow of Chinese capital was mostly not interpreted as an economic threat but as a threat to state security (國家安全), or (in case of publishing) a threat to media autonomy. The dominant discourse imposed was not that of opposing free trade but that of opposing economy being used for political goals, in other words: economic integration was interpreted as a mean of reunifying China and Taiwan. Thus the trade agreement was seen as an excuse the KMT and CCP are using to further their one China policy. In this context quite a few people made a point of the fact that they do not oppose free trade, but free trade with China. On the other hand, expect for a few debates at Jianmin jiefang qu, nobody really talked about the need of Taiwanese capital to consolidate their investments in China through political integration.

Broadening of the battlefield

On Sunday (March 23), when president Ma reaffirmed the decision to pass the trade agreement, tension broke out again and. Round 19:30 a crowd broke through the barbed wire barrier round the Executive Yuan. The first ones to enter used blankets to climb over the wire later they pried an opening on the southwestern entrance and knocked the barbed wire fence in the southeastern entrance, thus entering through both entrances on the south yard in front of the building. There was some scuffling with the cops at the main door and protesters, unable to force their way in, started braking the windows on the ground floor. Again it was mostly young people who entered the building. I guess the stairs were blocked by the cops, so a ladder was brought, and people started climbing to the first floor. People started bringing in the supplies immediately, but they did not really secure the building. The protesters just took a few rooms and there were big crowds in the yard in font of the entrance but most of the building and the yard in back of the building was controlled by the cops. Some people got hurt in the fights with the cops, three or four ambulances and also med-teams from the Parliament came and evacuated a few injured people. The "plan" was, I guess, another "non-violent" occupation. But it did not work out since there was a large police presence and for the first time cops in full riot gear were called in. One of the official reasons for the violent response was that it is illegal for citizens to enter the Executive Yuan. The police first started picking up people who did a sit-in on Beiping lu (street north of the Executive yuan) before one in the morning and latter moved in for the ones that were in the building and in the yard. I think they cleared the building before 03:00 but they were very slow at clearing the yard because the people there did another sit in, so they had to bring in the water cannon. It took them another 5 hours to disperse the crowd that was gathered round the southern entrances. They finally managed it at about 8 in the morning whit another water cannon attack. To my knowledge no tear gas or pepper spray were used. Although about 150 people were injured. All in all sixty people were arrested, but there was no active resistance against the police, beside the tire on one of the water cannons being slashed and a few plastic water bottles thrown at the cops.

During Monday there was some more and some less serious preparation for an eventual police eviction of Legislative Yuan. For example, the protesters moved some of the portable latrines to make a barricade on one of the streets. On another street they just placed a lot of plastic portable chairs upside down on the road and tied strings between the lamp poles, probably to make the potential action by the cops more inconvenient. I guess the cops were tired by the overtime they had to do on Monday morning and the government also decided that they got enough bad press for the time being, so they didn't go all the way. On Monday and Tuesday there were a few minor incidents of people using pyrotechnics or brandishing knives. A lot of these events were self-policed by the crowd who helped the cops restrain the troublemakers. Overall one could say that things were back to normal very quickly, with speeches and lectures from the podiums and most people just sitting on cardboard killing time.

The tide and the ebb

Sunday March 30th was, whit hundreds of thousands of people from all over Taiwan coming in to Taipei and occupying Zhongshan nanlu and other streets in the vicinity of the parliament, the "official" crest of the movement. Massive podiums and projector screens were set up on the road so that everybody in the crowd could get a good look of the spectacle they were participating in.

The police blocked a few blocks around the presidential offices whit barbed wire, but it was all uncalled for since the students turned out to be the best crowd control there was and the protesters were made incredibly pacific. The students just repeated the exercise they have been doing on the streets round the parliament for days only on a massive scale this time. People were again asked to sit in the middle of the streets in front of the screens and podiums, and all the streets had emergency corridors. The sanctitude of these corridors was again defended with polite but determined tenacity. All this left very little space for people who wanted to move around or do anything else beside sitting in the middle of the street listening to speeches. They were made to squeeze on the narrow sidewalks where it took ages to get anywhere. The Sunday spectacle lasted until evening, when the show was over people were asked to pack up, pick up their trash and go home.

In many ways the Sunday event was quite scary. There was even more nationalist rhetoric than usual. A speaker on one of the small podiums was even trying to make a point that the Taiwanese are racially different from the mainland Chinese, and he actually had quite a big and appreciative audience. What was even more disturbing is that students never made any effort to stop this kind of rhetoric or at least address it as problematic. Of course many students themselves harbor more or less subtle anti-Chinese sentiments.

The official end of the movement came on April 10th. This was the date by which the occupying core, after deciding that their demands were met, promised to vacate the parliament. But some protesters (mostly separatist) were not willing to leave the square in front of the parliament. The police, in spite of previous insurances that they would not use force against people who wanted to stay, responded with an eviction on the morning of April 11th in which one of the protesters was hurt. In response a crowd demanding the apology and resignation of Zhongzheng First Precinct police chief gathered in front of the police station. The event was again a spectacle of a crowd simultaneously protesting police brutality and at the same time assisting police in apprehending violent troublemakers.

There is no doubt that the movement did politicize a lot of students, this has been visible in the end of April in the massive occupation of the main street outside Taipei Railway Station in protest against opening of a new nuclear power plant. And again in the large number of young people participating in the May Day parade. But it did not go beyond politicizing. Although the movement was interesting in some of it's communal aspects, it was as a whole in no way a radical movement that would challenge or at least question existing relations. Moreover, the students who were perceived as the vanguard during the Sunflower movement (and acted accordingly) perpetuated the imperative of nonviolent tactics and an uncritical attitude towards police. It is no surprise that the April antinuclear demo ended in a passive sit-in with the cops hosing the protesters, and that just three days later, during May Day parade, a lot of students were carrying placards in support of letting the police establish their own unions... But all this makes sense if the student leaders are planing to get in to the parliament again, only this time through the ballot.