Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Occupy Congress in Taiwan: Political Opportunity, Threat, and the Sunflower Movement

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Occupy Congress in Taiwan: Political Opportunity, Threat, and the Sunflower Movement

Article excerpt

In opposition to a free trade pact with China, Taiwan's Sunflower Movement erupted in spring 2014 and occupied the national legislature for twenty-four days. Drawing from the recent debates on the relation between social movements and the state, I elaborate a revised polity model that focuses on the effects of elite disunity, threat, and movement strategy. The Sunflower Movement originated from a tactical misstep by the ruling party that created an immediate sense of threat from proposed closer economic ties with China, thereby facilitating protest mobilization. Student protesters were able to seize the national legislature because of an internal split within the ruling party and support from the opposition party. However, the failure to further exploit these favorable opportunities exposed the movement to government repression. Fortunately for the movement, the disunity among elites helped the activists manage a dignified exit, which they could claim as a success.

Keywords: political opportunity, threat, Sunflower Movement, Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement


At 9 P.M. on March 18, 2014, hundreds of students stormed Taiwan's national legislature to oppose the ruling party's railroading of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), a free trade pact with China. What was originally planned as a sit-in protest unexpectedly evolved into a political crisis, as the so-called Sunflower Movement (1) occupied the plenary conference chamber for twenty-four days, disrupting the regular working of the Legislative Yuan. On March 30, an unusually large protest rally of purportedly 500,000 people took place to emphasize four principal demands: (1) to withdraw the CSSTA from the legislature, (2) to enact the bill on Cross-Strait Agreement Supervision (CSAS), (3) to legislate the CSAS bill before the legal review of CSSTA, and (4) to convene a citizens' constitutional conference (gongmin xianzheng huiyi).

Throughout the stalemate, President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) remained adamant in his support of the CSSTA, though he appeared somewhat more accommodating to the idea of codifying the CSAS law and convening a national affairs conference. On April 6, Wang Jin-pyng, the KMT Legislative Yuan speaker whose relationship with Ma Ying-jeou had turned bitter since the previous year, intervened by promising not to put the CSSTA on the agenda until the CSAS law passed. Wang's declaration soon won endorsement by other KMT heavyweights, who clearly thought Ma's hard-liner approach was not conducive to settling the political crisis. Exploiting this visible split within the KMT, the Sunflower leaders declared they had "finished the mission of the current stage and secured significant achievement." (2) Four days later, the students and their allies evacuated the Legislative Yuan, thus concluding the highly dramatized standoff that had drawn national as well as international attention.

The student-initiated protest amounted to the biggest challenge to Ma Ying-jeou's rapprochement with the People's Republic of China (PRC), which had successfully deescalated the military tension and strengthened economic exchange without being able to assuage popular suspicion of China's political and territorial ambitions over Taiwan (Chu 2011, 149-152). It also dealt an embarrassing blow to the opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which was struggling to readjust its traditional pro-independence stance to the reality of a more assertive and powerful PRC (Schubert and Braig 2011, 87), especially after two consecutive defeats in presidential elections. Prior to the protest, the DPP opted for an article-by-article review of CSSTA rather than an outright rejection; however, once the congress was occupied, the DPP decided to back the students' demand to scrap the current CSSTA version.

The Sunflower Movement is intellectually intriguing in many ways. Generally speaking, Taiwan's society was not a fertile ground for radical protests. …

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