It has almost been a year since student protesters broke into the Legislative Yuan in Taipei and occupied Taiwan’s lawmaking body for 23 days in the spring of 2014. This event sparked more than 350,000 people to march the streets in opposition of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA). Many worried that there was no transparency when the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) passed the agreement, which would leave Taiwan “vulnerable and dependent on China,” endangering an already-threatened Taiwanese democracy and independence.
In the months that followed, the Sunflower Movement found itself at the center of many conversations across the world. It became the focus of academic conferences at the University of London and Nottingham University. It served as an inspiration for Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in the fall of 2014. It arguably catalyzed the KMT’s landslide losses in the 9-in-1 elections in November 2014. Opposition parties, including the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) and independent parties, swept 11,000 local and municipal elections. As a direct result, President Ma stepped down as the KMT party chair. Most of all, the Sunflower Movement was a message to Beijing that Taiwan was not for sale.
But, an article appearing in the Brown Political Review called the movement “incomplete.” Just because students disrupted the Legislative Yuan for a couple of days, did not mean Taiwanese investors would stop conducting business in China. Moreover, the movement created an illusion that Taiwan did not need China in its economic life. In fact in 2010, China accounted for almost 30% of Taiwan’s exports. Many critics voiced similar opinions. And, Beijing, which finally started to realize the magnitude of the Taiwanese’s mistrust of the mainland, responded by rolling out new policies, first by hosting Taiwanese labor union leaders and calling on them to support stronger economic ties.
While these are all true, the Sunflower Movement has left a legacy behind – larger than the leaders themselves imagined. Because of the Sunflower Movement, nearly 90 percent of the population identify themselves as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese,” while only 6 percent would consider themselves Chinese when forced to choose between the two. 69 percent would support independence while 17 percent would support unification when forced to choose between the two. This trend is even stronger among the younger generation of 20-29 year olds, who would be more likely to support independence and identify as Taiwanese. According to the Taiwan Brain Trust, “Young people care even more about politics and Taiwan’s future. They have now become confident and outspoken.” In the 9-in-1 elections, there was a turnout rate of over 70 percent among 20-29 year olds. Even though the movement leaders were not granted a meeting with President Ma and concessions were given by a rival party member, the implications of this movement go beyond these diplomatic motions.
Since the 1970s, Taiwan has undergone its share of civil movements in its path to political liberalization. In the 1980s, there was the Tang Wai Movement that established the multiparty system and the DPP. In the 1990s, there was the Wild Lily Student Movement that established direct presidential voting. Many participants of these movements became leaders of political parties. And now, the Sunflower Movement has been called one of Asia’s largest civil movements in the modern age. Clearly, these political dissent movements have propelled Taiwan’s democratization further.
In addition, the Sunflower Movement, argued by Aaron Huang of Rice University, has laid the groundwork for the reemergence of Taiwan’s civil society and possibility of a 3rd political party. Independent Ko Wen-Je, who won the Taipei mayoral race, called the civic movement “an era of Taiwan’s new politics.” According to a Taiwan ThinkTank poll, those previously mentioned 20-29 year old voters were more likely to support non-party candidates (like Ko) than members of either the KMT or the DPP.
Regardless of party affiliation, the movement highlighted and addressed very crucial issues surrounding “growing youth unemployment, stagnant low salary levels, dependency on China, and a growing population resonating more and more with Taiwanese nationalism and identity.” Change will not happen overnight, but at least with the help of the Sunflower Movement, the people of Taiwan were given another day to determine their own future. And, who knows, the student leaders of today may become Taiwan’s leaders tomorrow.