Monday, August 18, 2014

Reflection on “Social Movement in Taiwan since 2008” Workshop

This is the reflection article I wrote for the EATS' (European Association of Taiwan Studies) Newsletter on the Conference on "Social Movement in Taiwan since 2008" held at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) of University of London on June 25th.

Sunflower Movement Roundtable
Civil society is one of the vibrant features of Taiwan’s democracy. During Taiwan’s liberalization and democratization, social movements led by segments of civil society sprung over Taiwan’s political landscape. Since the election of President Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, Taiwan has experienced a resurgence of social movements, beginning with the Wild Strawberry Movement, where students and young protesters demand the government to respect the citizens’ right to expression and to assemble. The Wild Strawberry Movement became the first major student movement since the 1990s.

Since 2012, under President Ma’s second term, Taiwan experienced an eruption of social activism. The rising discontent over the Ma administration’s public policies, such as land expropriation, the eviction and forced demolition of citizens homes to make way for science parks and glitzy shopping areas and hotels, lawsuits against elderly laid off workers, the continue construction of the nuclear power plant, treatment of soldiers, coupled with growing apprehension over increasing Chinese influence over many sectors in Taiwan, invoked a series of small, persistent, “guerrilla- style” protests, as well as large demonstrations attended by tens of thousands participants.
Dr. Bi-yu Chang discussing my presentation

In June 2014, I had the pleasure and honour to be invited as a presenter and participant at the “Conference on Social Movement in Taiwan after 2008” sponsored by the Centre of Taiwan Studies in the School of Oriental and Africa Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Spearheaded by Dr Dafydd Fell, the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS is a hub for all things Taiwan. From Taiwanese films, arts and music screening to historical and political lessons, I learned the Centre of Taiwan Studies offers interdisciplinary studies to those who have chosen make Taiwan as the focus of their studies. The “Conference on Social Movements in Taiwan after 2008” was the most comprehensive conference dedicated to social movements in Taiwan and the issues associated with the movements I’ve attended. Moreover, since the conference was organized prior to the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, an additional roundtable event was added for all the conference participants to speak to and interact with SOAS students interested in Taiwan’s largest social movement to date. Several social movement themes were presented at the conference. They are: (1) Environmentalism; (2) Humanism; (3) Energy; (4) Land; (5) the China Factor, and (6) Strategies and effectiveness of social movements in Taiwan.

On the Environment 

National Sun Yat-sen University sociology professor and environmental activist, Professor Chiu Hua-mei focused her discussion on the evolution of environmental movement against industrial pollution in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan’s second largest city. Since Kaohsiung became an industrial city in Taiwan, many lauded its development of heavy industries and credited such development for the creation of jobs and prosperity. According to Dr Chiu, the City is divided into zones where various heavy industries, such as petrochemical and steel industries and power plants, made Kaohsiung their permanent home. What made Professor Chiu’s presentation exceedingly interesting was her elucidation on the different protest groups in Kaohsiung and the methods the groups use in protests. According to Chiu, the earlier protests in Kaohsiung were grassroots, mainly organized by local residents – farmers and fishermen – who were disgruntled by land grabbing and water pollution. The more massive protests against heavy industry pollution came in the 1980s but environmental activism suffered a down turn in the 1990s. Fascinatingly, Chiu informed the conference participants that it was as late as 2007 that the first professional environmental organization was founded. There on after, Kaohsiung’s environmental activism became more specialized and vigorous. Moreover, observers began to see the participation of urban residents and members of the middle class.

Professor Dafydd Fell of SOAS
With the middle class and urban citizens as additional participants, environmental activism in Taiwan surged. In the presentation under the title, “The Revival of the Green Party in Taiwan”, Professor Dafydd Fell’s discussion was a wholesome complementary to the surge of environmentalism through Taiwan. Fell contended that the Green Party performed better than any time in the Party’s history in the 2012 election. With the increase of constituents becoming more aware of environmental and energy issues, the Green Party in Taiwan, according to Fell, has found its policy niche to become and remain politically relevant.

One of the relevant environmental issue explicated by National Taiwan University’s Ming-sho Ho, was the protest against Naphtha Cracker Plants in Taiwan. According to Ho, this particular movement has been a persistent and consistent trend in Taiwan’s environmentalism. Ho traced the protests against Naphtha Cracker from 1987 to 2011 and concluded that due to increased public awareness of the tremendous pollution brought on by the petrochemical industry, new petrochemical projects are also increasingly difficult to establish. Environmental movements, according to Ho, are also becoming increasing less partisan. Most importantly, with the professionalization of environmental NGOs, mobilization is now more effective, and therefore, the protests are now more successful.

Energy and Land Issues

Professor Ho Ming-sho of NTU
Environmental activists in Taiwan often share the same protest grounds as the energy policy advocates. For example, the anti-nuclear energy activists also strongly advocated against the continuation of dumping nuclear waste on Orchid Island. Dr Simona Grano of the University of Zurich explicated the resurgence of the anti-nuclear protest since 2011. Grano personally participated in many environmental protests while conducting fieldwork in Taiwan. Grano also observed a surge of large-scaled anti-nuclear protest the past few years. The anti-nuclear protest drew tens of thousands participants to the streets. The protests were a family affair with parents bringing their young children and sometimes performing drills in case of a nuclear melt down. Anti-nuclear energy protesters even occupied Taipei Main Station and Zhongxiao West Road in the most recent protest in April.

Just as the citizens felt the nuclear energy issue is closely related to the welfare of one’s family, land grabbing and the demolition of homes is another issue that became very close to the minds and hearts of Taiwanese in recent years. Home demolition and land grabbing in places such as Dapu Borough of Miaoli County and the Huaguang Community in Taipei accompanied by images of excavators moving into farm land where rice was two weeks away from harvest and the borough residents properties scattered in ditches sparked the consistent and persistent “guerrilla type” protests through 2013 with the young protesters eventually occupying the Minister of Interior for forty eight hours.

I was responsible for presenting social movements sparked by land issues. I followed the administration’s attempt to expropriate citizens’ land for the past three years. What cultivated my interest was, when I went to Taiwan to conduct the last round of my dissertation research, I saw a video on television of an excavator mowing down a rice farm in a place named Dapu in Miaoli County. I then began researching the issues relating to Dapu and realized the Miaoli County government had been expropriating county residents’ land in order to make way for an extension of a science park, as well as an extra highway and a crematorium. The endeavor led to the demolition of several homes in Miaoli County and the victims of forced demolition committing suicide.

My presentation consisted of more than fifty photographs I took while observing the demolition and protests. This was the first time I used a tremendous amount of photographs for an academic presentation, and I received more feedback from the audience than some of my other panel discussions. My presentation at SOAS demonstrated the importance of field work and the extent to which images help deliver messages to the audience.

Strategies and Effectiveness of Social Movements
Professor Bi-yu Chang and J. Michael Cole

The most important part of the SOAS conference was the presentation and discussion of the strategies and the effectiveness of social movements in Taiwan, as well as the extent to which Taiwanese have chosen to deal with “the big elephant in the room”, as so eloquently stated by Professor Hsu Szu-chien of Academia Sinica. As many social movements as the panelists discussed at the conference, the most significant matter was, to what extent is the protest effective? What should be considered as a successful movement? What is not? This particular topic was hotly discussed at SOAS.

According to presenter J. Michael Cole, the success of a social movement should not be measured only by the number of participants at a protest. Cole argued, movements such as protest against demolition in Dapu Borough, the protest against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement led by the Black Island Nation Youth Alliance and the Alliance against Media Monster, are successful because the movement organizers made sure the government cannot ignore them and their respective issues are kept alive. Large protests such as the ones sponsored by Citizen 1985 to ensure proper treatment of military recruit, after an army corporal was tortured to death, were too predictable and organized for the government to be intimidated, though the Citizen 1985 demonstrations often drew tens of thousands of participant. Social movements that are too predictable and organized combined with the lack of effort to follow-up with the responsible government agencies and politicians have failed to cultivate the changes of law and to keep the issue alive.


The SOAS conference not only provided a platform for vigorous academic discussion on the surge of social movements in Taiwan after 2008, it was also a forum for academics, and activists to discuss not only research but to also share participation experiences in different movements. This was what I’ve never experienced in other conferences on Taiwan. The interdisciplinary and cross-professional nature of the conference should be encouraged, as I have learned tremendously from other conference participants.

Lastly, the SOAS conference also brought to the forefront an issue that cannot be ignored – the influence of China, as the China factor was one of the reasons for the student occupation of the Legislative Yuan and the Sunflower Movement. Moreover, the movement against media monopoly, the demolition of Mainlander communities in Taipei, land expropriation in Miaoli County and elsewhere in Taiwan, all in the name of progress, development and investment, all bear the influence of China.

I find the roundtable on the Sunflower Movement that was open to all students extremely important, as I was often asked why the young protesters in Taiwan decided to all of a sudden adopt the illegal mean of occupying the Legislative Yuan. The roundtable discussion on the Sunflower Movement allowed the discussants to explain to a broad audience on the causes, strategies and effectiveness of the Sunflower Movement. It was imperative to explain that the Sunflower Movement did not come out of the blue. It was a manifestation of the discontent and grievances toward the Ma administration after more than a year of non- responsiveness.

As the Legislative Yuan in Taiwan initiates yet another extraordinary session this week, the issue of Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement and the oversight bill lingers and are waiting to be resolved. Young activists are preparing for more demonstrations (Citizen 1985 is gearing up for a protest this weekend on the one year anniversary of their massive, 250,000-participant protest last year) for as long as the government remains nonresponsive to the demand of the citizens. Conference as the Conference on Social Movement in Taiwan is extremely helpful for academics and activists to not only share their research but also learn from each other’s field of expertise.

Professor Fan Yun of National Taiwan University

My second presentation was on the origin of the Sunflower Movement.
I find it imperative to give context to the movement.

Professor Szu-chien Hsu of Academia Sinica, Institute of Political Science