Let me paint a picture. The golden age of the American economy, where the US was the uncontested global hegemon after the Second World War, tripped over itself in the 1970s. Inflation, unemployment, and income inequality all rose significantly in the coming decades, contributing to what sociologists call the Great U-Turn, in reference to the receding of hard-earned social progress. Manufacturing jobs disappeared, entire towns across the country falling into despair in their absence. This crisis marked the end of a Fordist industrial capitalism, but as we all know, our economy did not die. It was a phoenix reborn, with new systems and new patterns. Here marked the beginning of advanced capitalism, characterized by a move to service industries and flexible corporate structures.
In the last 40 years, from a social perspective, things have not improved. During the 70s and 80s, we abandoned the idea of lifting all boats. Myths of the welfare queen took hold in American minds and bootstrap ideology prevailed despite the crushing contrary evidence. Equalizing forces, such as social welfare programs and unions, took a beating. And now, the wealthiest 1% holds 40% of the wealth in the country. About half of college graduates are working in positions that do not require a degree. We have modern day slavery in the form of for-profit prisons, we have deported millions and counting, and women’s reproductive rights are being eroded nationwide.
This is the America I left four months ago.
I came to Taiwan, and found the economic picture here to be strangely similar to the one I had just left. The home of the “developmental miracle” had lost a bit of its shimmer. College graduates were relegated to unstable part-time jobs and facing stagnating wages. While GDP had been rising steadily during the last decade (with the exception of 2010) yet it seemed that society had not seen its benefits. Presidential promises had not come through for the masses. These two countries may have recovered their growth, yet large portions of citizens are still struggling to scrape by. What used to work now seems broken. This is the environment that is the tinder for the Sunflower Movement.
I am sure that many of you are aware of the situation in Taipei. (If not, please peruse this article, and this one, and this one). I will not proceed to trouble you with the sequence of events. What I will try and provide is a general feel and context for this movement and consider these events from a few different perspectives.
The Trade Agreement
The Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CCSTA) with China was the catalyst for the student movement. Amidst growing distrust for the government, low approval rates for the president, and economic stagnation, students started paying attention to this particular trade agreement, and found issue with the way that it was quickly passed through the legislative body. Why was this particular agreement so controversial, when there were many very much like it passed with other countries with little to no attention? I’ve gathered a few of reasons.
- The clause-by-clause review that was supposed to happen, in fact, did not happen. The contents of the agreement were also not widely known, resulting in people’s protest against the “black box.” Most consider this lack of transparency a violation of the democratic process.
- There is an obvious question of sovereignty in this particular agreement, since it is with a country that Taiwan has long been on tenuous terms with. Previous trade agreements of this type that were passed quickly and without notice were with countries that had not threatened to use force to annex Taiwan, nor did those countries have quite the economic influence.
- There had also been previous agreements (such as ECFA) with China which did not result in the improvements that were promised at the time of their passing. Taiwan has been increasing contact with China for a while now, yet no real improvement has been realized.
But, let me make a few clarifications on some common misconceptions.
- Most people I spoke to were not necessarily against a trade agreement with China, or trade agreements in general, but did not agree with the way in which this trade agreement was handled. People know that their economy depends on having trade partners.
- This movement is as non-partisan as I think an issue like this can be. The students have been trying to keep the DPP at arm’s length whilst fighting a KMT administration. The young people are distrustful of both parties, and many feel the DPP are just trying to reap the benefits of the movement. But of course, any movement against KMT leaders is inherently helpful to the opposition party. Students are, nevertheless, trying to keep ownership of this movement and make sure it doesn’t become a partisan farce. The division seems most evident between generations. Older people tend to fall along party lines, but the biggest differences I see are the attitudes between the students and their parents.
- Domestic mainstream media has more or less lost influence with substantial portions of the population, again, mostly with the younger generation. People have turned off their televisions out of distrust, and have turned to their computers and cellphones instead. Social media has been by far the most preferred method of spreading and gathering news. Only very recently has international media started to pay attention.
The President, after a long silence, eventually spoke on the matter after several days of protest, but not in a way that was helpful. The citizens were unsatisfied. Things escalated quickly after another group of students stormed the Executive Yuan, and were evicted soon after. Videos and photos of police violence flooded the internet. Reactions to the incident pushed the issue to even higher heights, leading to March 30th’s renewed rally, drawing hundreds of thousands. And students remain in the Legislative Yuan, as thousands, if not tens of thousands, of others sit around the building, to this day. It remains a peaceful protest.
What does the Sunflower Movement mean for Taiwan?
The story goes that Sunflower Movement was named as a result of a florist who donated many sunflowers to the protestors in support of their cause. The students took this particular flower and saw it as a symbol of their desire to bring CCSTA to light, to pull it out of the shadows and into the sun, where everyone can see it. The protest has successfully brought to light a number of questions about CSSTA, the future of Taiwan as an entity, and as a democracy.
- What kind of democracy do we want?
- What kind of government accountability would we like?
- What sort of relationship with China do we want?
- What sort of economic changes would we like to see?
- How does Taiwan’s history tie into its future?
- Who are the past, present, and future beneficiaries of globalization?
Taiwan cannot detangle itself from the forces of globalization (even if it wanted to), but it can make decisions as to how it prepares for and reacts to them. Neoliberalization tends to result in the wealthier sections of the population benefiting the most from free trade, as they are in positions that allow them to take advantage of legislation, whereas the less mobile middle and working classes suffer from the increasing mobility of capital. There are winners and losers within any kind of political move, but Taiwan must be aware of the trade-offs. People only desire to be a part of the decision. No, not everyone is an expert on trade policy. But if our hard-won democracy does not afford us even the chance to discuss our future, than what good is it?
Another issue that Taiwanese people from across the political spectrum have been struggling with is the issue of identity, statehood, and sovereignty with regards to China. This may be the defining political issue in the country, and there is no easy way to move forward. The Sunflower Movement electrifies this debate with new vigor. Again, there are tradeoffs to consider. Can we continue to let things go as they have been?
What does the Sunflower Movement mean for Taiwanese Americans?
So how does a student movement halfway across the world affect Taiwanese Americans living in the US? Most obviously, many of us feel a loyalty to this wonderful little island because it is our heritage. We have a deeply personal connection with Taiwan, love Taiwan as our own, may have family still in Taiwan, and hope for its success.
Secondly, how Taiwan sits on the international stage affects how others see us. Unfortunately, economic performance affects how Taiwanese Americans and Asian Americans are seen and treated. This is a very complicated interaction, but economic and diplomatic relations in Asia will undoubtedly directly influence the experiences of Asians living in the US. In our history, the economic rise of Japan in high tech industries was mirrored in Asian American experiences. Asian Americans were the targets of all kinds of anti-Japanese sentiments. Vincent Chin was a Chinese American who was murdered by white autoworkers who were angry over lost jobs due to Japanese competitors. Many non-Asian aggressors spend little time thinking about the differences between different kinds of Asians, and thus we are bound to each other by this lack of differentiation. Yet, Japanese Americans have a different experience with the white majority than say, perhaps Cambodian Americans, due to differences in the economic status of the two origin countries. The tension between these two tendencies will only increase in complexity. We are already seeing a rise in anti-China feelings due to China’s economic rise. And for us as Taiwanese Americans, it is treacherous ground to tread.
Thirdly, we have our own issues with free trade and globalization in the United States. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a huge international agreement posed by the US, and its surrounding situation bears an uncannily likeness to that of the CCSTA. Joe Stiglitz, a renowned economist, describes the issue with the way the TPP has been negotiated.
These high stakes are why it is especially risky to let trade negotiations proceed in secret. All over the world, trade ministries are captured by corporate and financial interests. And when negotiations are secret, there is no way that the democratic process can exert the checks and balances required to put limits on the negative effects of these agreements. (Stiglitz, 2014)
Sounds familiar, does it not? A free trade agreement, negotiated in secret, which the president hoped to “fast-track” through Congress, that does not benefit the majority of workers gets caught by civil society and is now stuck. Are these not the very worries of the Sunflower students? The TPP in its current form would allow corporations to sue governments for interfering with profits. If a Taiwanese American supports Taiwanese students in the Sunflower Movement, than perhaps it might be an action of consistency to take a closer look at American economic policy as well, which really has done little to recommend itself lately. Globally, workers do not benefit from the majority of trade agreements like the TPP. Not to mention, Taiwan has expressed interest in joining the agreement.
How can we look at the Sunflower Movement in a Global Context?
There seem to have been many uprisings in recent years, from Arab Spring countries to Ukraine. We can see that the Sunflower Movement is related to other such movements around the globe. The Sunflower Movement is a response to a myriad of political, economic, and identity issues in Taiwan, and these issues are connected to many other issues around the world, via the globalization processes expedited by advanced capitalism. We live in a world where Facebook and YouTube can be a populist platform for information dissemination, aided by microchips in smartphones that are produced in Taiwan, and then are sold on an international market. We must see this movement in the context of new technologies and systems, but with perennial questions of justice, government accountability, and people’s rights.
The world is getting more and more unequal and our economic system is founded on increasing consumption. Other than the moral implications of this, what else do we have to lose? As it turns out, maybe everything.
A new study partly-sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.(Ahmed, 2014)
For over 20 years, scientists have been trying to publicize the issue of climate change. Despite attempts, precious little has been done to mitigate carbon emissions or adapt to oncoming changes. We are most likely beyond the point of no return, as climate systems are not linear but have many feedback loops and there is a tipping point where there is no going back. And we cannot deny that our economic system and trade are a part of the problem. We are at the brink of the fall of civilization. Dr. Werner, a geophysicist using advanced computer models, has come to a conclusion that many other scientists have (perhaps reluctantly) come to:
He isn’t saying that his research drove him to take action to stop a particular policy; he is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And indeed that challenging this economic paradigm – through mass-movement counter-pressure – is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe. (Klein, 2013)
The Sunflower Movement and Occupy Wall Street are two examples of common people fighting back against those who are content to continue benefiting from the current system at the expense of others, or are too far removed from on-the-ground happenings to know what to do about them. I do not mean to say that every protestor in such movements have the right idea (or sometimes any ideas), or always do the right thing, nor that elites are evil and malicious beings. And trade agreements are not inherently “bad” things. But this movement, among others, is what I see as a fight to have a say in what happens to humanity. It is not just about the KMT or trade with China or sovereignty. It is about civil society not giving up their rights, their lives, and their planet without a fight.
Let us paint a different picture.
By: A. Chu/朱驊
This piece was written in reaction my experience here in Taipei as these events unfolded. I can’t claim to be “objective” and I can’t read Chinese as well as it would be necessary to keep abreast of the Chinese language resources, so I fully acknowledge this blind spot in my perspective. If you’d like to weigh in on the subject, feel free, as I’d love to know about different viewpoints. But uninformed rants and trolls will not be tolerated.
Another thing, yes, I have used “we/us/our” in regards to both Taiwan and the US. I feel that as a Taiwanese American, I sit in the middle of these two places of identity and am linguistically making a claim to both. Perhaps I’m being audacious.
And, let me assure you, I am well aware of the many merits of my country. But I still take my freedom of speech seriously and will continue to critique the less than consistent or moral actions of the US while still being very aware of the privileges I hold as a citizen.
II. Special Thanks:
Thanks to Tammy Yen/顏維婷, Edison Chen/陳建宇, Austin Lu/呂孟捷, Ben Chen/陳維斌, 邱芷萱, Kelly Lin/林亞暄, Laura VanVliet, and friends from 我在旅行 who have put up with my badgering, and all the protestors who shared their thoughts with me.
III. Helpful Links and References:
Student Movement’s Pages, in English
“News” Reports on Events:
Climate and Society: