What motivates the Sunflowers

By John Copper  / 

Sun, Apr 06, 2014 - Page 8

The recent tide of student protest in Taiwan over a trade in services agreement with China has captured the attention of nearly everyone in Taiwan and even the foreign media. The number of student demonstrators has been large. They have occupied government offices and have partially paralyzed the political system.

Observers are pondering why the students are so energized and what is behind their movement.

The following are some of the theories:

One, the pan-green camp, or the opposition parties, orchestrated the student protest. It is the pan-greens’ modus operandi. They are good at it. They want to mold public opinion and embarrass President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). The pan-greens, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in particular, organized street protests to oppose the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in 2010. This protest is similar in its origins and purposes. The students’ well-planned actions seem to reveal a level of professionalism that only a party or parties could provide.

The timing also suggests pan-green leaders seek to help candidates running in the Nov. 29 seven-in-one elections. It is already election season and the parties are organizing and planning campaigns — the pan-green camp needs unity, which is lacking.

It is not clear who will prevail in the election. It is thought that the November elections will have an impact on the 2016 presidential and vice presidential elections. These will decide much about Taiwan’s future. Both factors amplify the need for winning.

Two, the student protest started spontaneously. The pan-greens saw it as an opportunity or duty to support it once it gained momentum and attention.

The basis for the students’ dissatisfaction is Taiwan’s poorly performing economy, lack of jobs for graduates, opportunities drying up everywhere, except in China, while Taiwanese companies dealing with China provide jobs some students do not want, a general malaise, and dysfunctional politics. Clearly the students’ protest mirrored public displeasure with the situation in Taiwan and the performance of government.

Some student leaders saw an opening to show their skills to qualify themselves as future politicians or get media attention. Indeed, they have accomplished both in spades.

It is also springtime and there had not been any significant student protests for a while. These variables have helped explain student protests in the US and other Western countries.

Three, the feud between Ma and Legislative Yuan speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) precipitated the protest. Clearly it was a prelude, and had divided the students, as they already were, due to the state of education in Taiwan, along ethnic lines that paralleled the prevailing “ideologies” on campuses: unification with China or independence.

Students were upset with Ma for using what they termed “intelligence techniques” to gather information on Wang. Thus, Ma’s “spying on citizens” trumped evidence of Wang’s corruption as being more wrong for the students. This also mirrored deep concern around the world about governments gathering too much information on citizens. This concern increased after the Edward Snowden case and evidence of the US National Security Agency’s infamous overreaching.

Four, the student protest was — planned may be too strong a word — allowed, even encouraged, by the KMT. This may seem counterintuitive; but here are three reasons for saying this.

The student protest against the pact with China was sure to anger Chinese leaders — it did. The DPP was trying to improve relations across the Taiwan Strait knowing that its hostile China policy had hurt the party and former chairperson Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) 2012 presidential bid. The DPP leaders acknowledged this and were making efforts to fix it. The student protest has undermined this.

The protest hurt the DPP’s efforts to improve relations with the US — also assumed to be a DPP handicap. Washington is promoting a trade agreement with Asia called the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. US President Barack Obama’s administration is asking Congress to approve it as a package and not examine and vote on each part. The US wants Taiwan to join. In other words, Obama is facing the same problems as Ma in trying to get a trade agreement passed without it being picked apart and politicized.

The KMT would like to see the DPP alienate the business community in Taiwan — which its stance on the service agreement is doing. Business favors the treaty. Businesses are less likely to donate money to the DPP’s election campaigns because of the protest and the DPP’s role in it.

Protest movements are often difficult to dissect in terms of their causes and aims. Taiwan’s student protest fits this mold.

Obviously the students’ motives are multifaceted. Likely all of the above theories are to some degree correct, even though on face value they seem contradictory.

John Copper is the Stanley J. Buckman Professor of International Studies (emeritus) at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.