From Wild Lilies to Sunflowers: Discovering Taiwan’s Democracy

From fist fights in the parliament to protests that seem to rotate through Taipei every few months, Taiwan’s democracy is oftentimes placed under intense scrutiny.

“Look at how messed up Taiwan’s government is,” I’d hear often. But critics often forget this obvious precursor to democratic maturity: age.

Taiwan is known as the beacon of democracy in Asia, as the only Han society to know freedom today. However, people also forget how young this fragile democracy is, or how recent its birth from the Wild Lily Movement was.

The year is 1990, the same year I was born. Martial law was lifted just three years ago. The government is still under singular control by the Chinese Nationalist Party, or the Kuomintang (KMT). Students, dissatisfied with what continued to be an authoritarian regime, started a protest at the very place meant to memorialize its leader, the Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall. The actions of one student body stirred another; from one school to another, thousands of students organized grassroots movements against the government. Over a decade later, a new wave of students would similarly ignite the Sunflower Movement.

On the third day of these protests, known as the Wild Lily Movement, then-President Lee Teng-Hui invited these student leaders to the presidential office to discuss their demands. If ever asked to pinpoint a singular event of democratic leadership, I would refer to this moment. President Lee listened to these students and their demands for democratization. While he represented the oppressive government that these students had protested against, during the first direct presidential election in 1996, he was elected with 54% of the votes and became a spiritual symbol for Taiwanese independence.

I’m not saying the Wild Lily Movement led to any sort of happy ending for Taiwan, or that contemporary Taiwan is infallibly prosperous. What I want us to remember, though, is that Taiwan’s democracy is young. It is younger than me, yet often drawn in comparison to America’s democracy, which even in maturity proves to be deeply flawed. Taiwan is also held up to its former companions of the other three Asian tigers – Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea – and berated for poor economic growth. What simple comparisons neglect is the intersection of democratic growth and economic aggression. What Taiwan gave up in economic leadership, it invested in freedom of speech.

How do I know all this? I’m the founder of Outreach for Taiwan, an organization that leads collegiate workshops to encourage dialogue and education centering around all things Taiwan including the-hard-to navigate political atmosphere, current events, and historical relevance of Taiwan. I learned about the Wild Lily Movement when researching for my first Taiwan workshop. This is one of my favorite topics to discuss purely due to the resounding relevance of student activism. As I’m giving workshops and talking to Taiwanese American undergraduates, I tell them that “Taiwan’s first election was in 1996. How many of you were born around then?” Many students would raise their hands and, in reflection, understand how young and fragile a twenty-something might be.

On the other hand, students in Taiwan are reaching adulthood alongside Taiwanese democracy. Many of them only know a Taiwan where political squabbles are on the news everyday, and where protests are not just possible, but a healthy and necessary part of politics. Today, social and political activism centers around the betterment of the Taiwanese people, whether these take form in indigenous rights or same-sex marriage.

The legacy of the Wild Lily Movement is that young people believe in their infinite ability to demand and affect change. From the Sunflower Movement to the LGBTQ Movement to the Women’s Day Marches to the Keep Taiwan Free demonstrations in the United States, students here and overseas have inherited the fighting spirit.

What does this mean for young Taiwanese Americans? For one, we have cousins and friends forming a radically different political landscape in Taiwan than the ones our parents remember. For another, we have their courage to remind us that Taiwanese democracy is worth protecting and advocating for on the global stage. We can insist on its inclusion in conversations about healthcare, student activism, and LGBTQ rights. We can incorporate Taiwan into curricula where it is otherwise missing. Lastly, we can emulate our Taiwanese counterparts and exact change in the society we care about. No longer do we have to be the silent model minority, but activists — Taiwanese American activists.

Eric Tsai grew up in Taiwan and graduated with a BS in Computer Science from Rutgers University. He was Vice President of the Rutgers Taiwanese American Student Association. After graduating, he was involved in Formosan Association for Public Affairs (FAPA) workshops and helped organize multiple UN4Taiwan/Keep Taiwan Free rallies. He co-founded OFTaiwan as a way to help Taiwanese Americans learn more about Taiwan. Through the organization, he has spoken to multiple college Taiwanese American Associations and has been invited to hold workshops at ITASA conferences. He is fluent in Taiwanese, Mandarin, and English. He is currently based in Boston but is hoping to move back to Taiwan soon.


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