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How the Sunflower Movement gave birth to a generation determined to protect Taiwan

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How the Sunflower Movement gave birth to a generation determined to protect Taiwan

Rushing over walls and doors, they climbed into the parliamentary chamber, filling the corridors with signs, while stacking chairs against the door like barricades against the police.

Hundreds of young people, mostly Taiwanese students, stormed the National Parliament in Taipei.

They had gathered in front of the government building to protest the government’s attempts to impose a trade treaty between Taiwan and China that the students said would put their country in even greater danger from Beijing.

The occupation and subsequent street protests in 2014 became known as the Sunflower Movement and lasted for more than three weeks, only ending when the controversial bill was withdrawn.

A decade later, it is remembered as one that radically changed Taiwan’s political democracy, giving birth to a new generation of idealistic young politicians while providing vital lessons further afield, for Hong Kong and the ‘Ukraine.

“If we don’t fight for ourselves, no one will”

Before the final victory, protesters in the National Legislative Assembly had to think about food and sanitation. The assault had been planned, but, according to Brian Hioe, a Taiwanese activist turned writer and political commentator, they didn’t really expect it to be successful.

The legislature has become a mini-city, much like the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests seen earlier in the United States, or those seen later that year in Hong Kong, and again in 2019. Teams security and media were established and factions formed to make decisions. manufacturing became more centralized within a small circle of protest leaders.

A protester leaves her message on a fabric wall outside the Legislative Yuan building, marking the 10th anniversary of the Sunflower Movement. Photograph: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA

The then opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) seized the opportunity and its members – including current President Tsai Ing-wen and Vice President-elect Hsiao Bi-Khim – mobilized to protect the protesters and their sit-ins.

The subsequent taking of another government building, on March 23, saw violent repression by the police and more than 100 arrests. A week later, between 110,000 (according to the police estimate) and half a million (according to the organizers’ estimate) gathered in front of the presidential building in support of the movement.

On April 6, Parliament Speaker Wang Jin-pyng agreed to the protesters’ request, announcing that the bill would not be submitted to the legislature until public oversight mechanisms were in place. After 23 days, the protesters agreed to disperse.

The protests received little international attention. At the same time as students occupied Taiwan’s Parliament, much of the world’s attention was elsewhere, notably on Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution and then Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The world was also shocked by the disappearance of flight MH370, ten days before the start of the Tournesol protests. A few months later, Hong Kong Umbrellas protesters occupied the streets of the city center for several months.

Lin Fei-fan, leader of the Sunflower movement, says there were – and still are – clear parallels between Ukraine, Taiwan and Hong Kong. “Ukraine and Taiwan faced the same question: join the world or enter the orbit of an authoritarian state. Hong Kong was already in this orbit, but still fighting for its autonomy and democracy.

He said the few foreigners watching Taiwan were pessimistic, citing a widely shared article about China’s threats to its sovereignty, titled “Say Goodbye to Taiwan.” The protesters were motivated by the principle that “if we don’t fight for ourselves, no one will.”

Ten years after the protests, Taiwan is still threatened but remains a noisy democracy, increasingly resistant to Chinese domination. In Hong Kong, dissent and opposition have been almost entirely crushed by the city government and China’s ruling Communist Party (CCP).

“I think the fundamental difference unfortunately is whether or not you have sovereignty,” Lin says of the divergent paths.

“One lesson we can learn from Hong Kong is that even in this situation, there are still many, many young Hong Kongers who are not giving up… We don’t want Taiwan to face the situation that Hong Kong has been facing. faced, we really need to keep this kind of situation. of spirit and determination to grow in Taiwan.

After the protests, several activists from the Tournesol movement entered formal politics. Some formed new parties while others, like Lin, joined the DPP – which two years later resoundingly defeated the Kuomintang (KMT) in regional and national elections, and is still in power. Miao Po-ya, Taipei City Councilor said Local media said this week that the protests had boosted youth voting and political engagement.

Hioe notes that a network of international solidarity groups formed in the wake of the protests. “Basically, wherever there was a gathering of Taiwanese students, organizations would form.”

Lin Fei-fan, former leader of the Sunflower Movement, speaks in front of the Legislative Yuan Building on its 10th anniversary. Photograph: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA

The challenge now for the DPP is to retain the youth vote. Generation Z Taiwanese grew up under the DPP’s rule, and there was a visible shift toward the new populist Taiwan People’s Party in January’s elections.

On Monday evening, demonstrators gathered again in front of Parliament, to mark the last decade. Signs opposed the revival of the bill that sparked the protests – which the TPP had proposed during the election campaigns – and criticized the KMT and the CCP. “Until the KMT falls, Taiwan will not be well,” it reads.

According to Lin, the overall impact of the movement was a new understanding that political decisions – especially those regarding China – should not be in the hands of an elite.

“Civil society has a role to play in influencing policy, and we control our own destiny. »

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