One year after the Sunflower Movement: All Quiet in Taipei?
March 24, 2015 by Ting Guo
One year after Taiwan’s Sunflower Student Movement (March 18-April 10), in which student protestors and civic groups occupied Taiwan’s legislature for 23 days in opposition to the establishment of a trade pact between China and Taiwan by the governing Kuomintang, Ting Guo looks back at the lasting impact of the movement on the Taiwanese electoral landscape.
On 29 November a group of Taiwanese students studying in the UK organised a party to watch the 2014 Taipei mayor election online. They told me that they wanted to witness history, and they did: National Taiwan University medical professor Ko Wen-je (nickname “Ko P”, short for Professor Ko) – the first non-partisan mayor of the city since its elevation as special municipality – successfully won the election.
For many, this is a perfect example of the power of democracy. Taiwan’s ruling party, the Kuomingtang (KMT), suffered one of its worst electoral defeats since Chiang Kai-shek and his forces fled to the island at the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949. Hours after polls closed, the KMT premier, Jiang Yi-huah, resigned. President Ma Ying-jeou — chairman of KMT and his vice-chairman, Hau Lung-pin, also announced their intention to resign. Ma apologised to supporters for the KMT setback, “I have heard their voices and I will not evade my responsibility to start reforms,” he said.
Will history begin differently from here?
Protestors occupying the Taiwanese legislature
Does art imitate life? If the hit TV series All Quiet in Peking is anything to go by, then the answer is yes. Prior to this election, this series, which portrays the dilemmas facing young officials during the civil war between the Communist Party and the KMT received 400m hits on VOD, and dramatically ended with the defeat of the KMT. After this election, Mainland netizens joked that “the KMT lost twice in one day, in reality just as in the show.”
The dramatic turn of the election further emphasised the similarity between the two; some even speculated: “it’s not coincidence, it’s a prediction”. One Taiwanese journalist working on the Mainland commented on his Facebook page that “Taipei now seems like a large-scale studio for All Quiet in Peking”.
All Quiet in Peking is particularly popular among educated viewers in China. The semi-official tabloid Global Times claims that it is the “interesting stories and historical accuracy” that differentiates it from some of the over-the-top war dramas that have aired in China in recent years. The sensitive nature of the time period in which the story unfolds made production of the show extremely difficult, but through the perspective of a well-educated handsome young officer, Liu Ye, who leads a conflicted life as a double agent, All Quiet in Peking strikes people as being “fair and impartial” from the outset. In the scriptwriter Liu Heping’s mind, when people begin to ignore the reality of history, they deny themselves a future. As such he has, he says, “taken great pains to be objective”.
In an interview with the Oriental Morning Post, Liu believes “even the Taiwanese audiences would be able to accept the drama”, as he feels that it is fair and objective when it comes to its portrayal of the KMT.
“My wish is to produce something that Chinese people around the world can approve of.”
Youth and Elections
Like this TV series, the election was also a triumph for the young generation. The average age of Ko’s campaign team is under 35 with social media contributing significantly to the pre-election debates. The young generation Taiwanese grew up in the post-martial law era, enjoyed freedom of speech and the rights endowed by social reforms and the electoral system. They are more politically active and socially engaged than preceding generations and perhaps than their peers in the Mainland, who, on the contrary, grew up in an economically accelerating yet ideologically sensitive time, and tend to be more realistic and apolitical.
Significantly, many overseas Taiwanese voted in this election, a departure from the the low turnout of the presidential election in 2012. In particular the younger generation has shown a willingness to participate in shaping a new potential direction of the society. A Mainland student who studies in Taiwan observes:
“After Taiwan’s Sunflower student movement, young students set off a ‘cut off “appendix” (homophonic to KMT’s blue flag in Mandarin) plan,’ in order to remove KMT legislators following the legal procedure. So far they have successfully collected over 40,000 signed petitions to remove KMT legislator. The significance is beyond partisan politics, but it affects representative politics as well.”
In In the Shadow of China: Political Changes in Taiwan since 1949, Steve Tsang notes the development and transformation of a Leninist-style authoritarian party-state into an increasingly democratically-oriented state in Taiwan. If we see Taiwan (formally the “Republic of China”, ROC) as part of China, according to the CCP, then Taiwan offered a possibility of achieving democracy within China, hence creating a paradox and challenge to CCP’s legitimacy of ruling.
The problem of national identity in Taiwan relates to the KMT’s ideology and the political institutions that it has firmly controlled since 1949. This issue also connects with the opposition movement and the processes of social and political construction. Hu Fu argues that the mechanism of elections in Taiwan has played a role in “weakening the entrenched authoritarian role of the KMT regime and pushing the democratization process forward”. Using survey data, Hu’s findings suggest that the election mechanism has both nurtured the rise of the opposition and promoted the emergence of the issue of national identity. Equally, it has reduced the importance of social class in national politics.
The Mayor of Taipei is head of the Taipei City Government during his four-year tenure. Presidents Lee Teng-hui, Chen Shui-bian and Ma Ying-jeou all held this position prior to being elected president. KMT loyalists previously denied that this election would affect the cross-strait relationship, saying a local election is unlikely to influence the central government policies. However, it is now being recognised that the loss of the capital Taipei was a serious blow to the KMT, as the ruling party’s political territory has shrunk from 15 cities and counties to six.
Two other counties—offshore Lienchiang county and the eastern county of Hualien—went to independents. The South China Morning Post remarks that the KMT’s landslide defeat in the island’s biggest-ever local elections is regarded by analysts as voter payback for the failures of the mainland-friendly administration. Xu Zhen, the founder of Hong Kong Zhi Ming Institute told BBC Chinese that “Ko never denied his pro-DPP (known as ‘deeply green’) inclination, despite his ‘beyond both blue and green’ campaign slogan, which constitutes his success”.
Will we see a different political direction in Taiwan now that the KMT’s authority has been damaged? How will it affect politics in China?
After the election, former Taipei major Hau Lung-pin remarked that he shares Ko’s “beyond blue and green” sentiment, and would like to help to see Mainland-friendly KMT and pan-independent DPP resolve their conflicts. However soon after, Ko’s selection of his cabinet generated controversy: he chose New Party (NT) member Teng Chia-chi to serve as one of his deputy majors. NT has been suspected for its support for CCP’s “One Country, Two Systems”, and some commentators remark that “people’s honeymoon with Ko will soon be over,” and the reality will begin.
A note posted on the wall of the campaign headquarters of losing KMT mayoral candidate Lien Sheng-wen said: “Do not feel content in retaining the partial ruling in Taiwan, go and build a modern China”. This sentiment is shared by very few younger generation Taiwanese, who feel little connected to the people in Mainland, so the note may imply more of a sarcastic nature to KMT’s pro-Mainland outlook.
The Economist observes that local elections are more about such issues as urban development rather than relations with China. Candidates sought to win over voters with plans for building infrastructure and public housing. But the poll did reflect widespread dissatisfaction with President Ma’s handling of the economy, says George Tsai of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.
Salaries have stagnated for years and there is a widespread belief that only Taiwan’s business elite is reaping the economic rewards of closer ties with China. (Ma has signed 21 agreements with China, including a ground-breaking free-trade pact in 2010.) This view is particularly prevalent among Taiwanese youth, who were at the forefront of the Sunflower Movement.
On the side of the Mainland, two days after the election, independent Chinese website CNPolitics reviewed the journey that led to Taiwan’s political reform, suggesting that the political structure of an authoritarian regime and its impact on its opponents to participate in social movements determines the degree of stability of partisan politics after democratization.
The author also remarks that this pattern will have significant implications for its Mainland readers in terms of a democratic future of Chinese society. China’s overall attitude to these elections was to suggest that they were somehow “non-Chinese” and a foreign plot to split China. However this election shows that the CCP will find it harder to justify its rule as the only road forward for “China”.