When the Sunflower movement started, I was in Toronto giving a seminar and teaching a class on President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) government reform of Taiwan’s history textbooks. I was about to leave my hotel for the university to give the last seminar, when I received a text message from Taiwan telling me that students opposing a trade deal with China had just stormed the Legislative Yuan.
I instantly thought: Am I like Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙), about to miss the beginning of a revolution? My plane was leaving that night, which means that I would arrive on the second day. Will police have cleared the site by then? But, of course, I was no Sun Yat-sen, having inspired no revolution.
Photo: Stephane Corcuff
The astonished audience in Toronto discussed the occupation as it unfolded in real time — something even up to a decade ago was unthinkable in a venue held so far way from the field.
Information technology has changed not only the way people mobilize, but also how scholars document ourselves and reflect on events. No one can roll back such a significant development, however terrifying it might seem. Today, the amount of time some scholars and elected politicians spend on Facebook, blogs, Twitter and other social media, distracts them from reading, thinking and conducting interviews in the field, immersed for weeks and months in other people’s lives far away from our offices. And now, the movement was just about to unite the two, by giving a chance to so many scholars to spend nights and days with students on the ground. The core mission of scholars and politicians — to think slowly and wisely about our society, its problems, its reforms, its future — has become increasingly difficult. Reading books are now a luxury, but we now have to admit that fieldwork has been restructured in many ways by technology.
I arrived back in Taipei on the afternoon of day two of the occupation. Thanks, globalization. I do not particularly like you, but you did me a favor on that day.
Photo: Stephane Corcuff
The reason I wanted to return so quickly is obvious: Like other academics specializing in Taiwanese identity politics and geopolitics in the Taiwan Strait, I wanted to understand what was happening on the ground. Would it be a turning point? Would the government send in troops? Would China, whose rulers had repeatedly said for 20 years that political turmoil and major social instability in Taiwan would be a reason to intervene, remain silent or enter a new phase of relations?
Such questions were not meaningless. As we know, it turned out that the government did not send in the military (at least not into the legislature), China was shocked and in spite of its long standing menace, did not intervene. And yes, it was, from many respects, a turning point.
Before arriving back in Taipei, I couldn’t help but think that the storming of the legislature would instantly become a historical event. How come, as a scholar taking particular care in using words, could I consider an event as becoming instant history, as if it were instant noodles?
Photo: Stephane Corcuff
The storming of Taiwan’s legislature appeared to many as brave (it was) and unprecedented. But the fact is that it was neither unique, or a first. Indeed, each time a legislature is stormed, occupied, defended, shielded or burnt, by pro-democracy forces or anti-democracy ones (when we can distinguish them), it “makes history” because it reveals an impasse in dialogue between political forces. In many cases induces historical change. Storming and occupying a legislature, however brief, is not so rare in history, and each time it happens, it underlies the major significance of what a legislature is and what is at stake.
Three historical events and memories came back to me before I landed in Taiwan last March. The first, in 1993, the shelling of Moscow’s parliament, in the midst of the conflict between Boris Yeltsin and the undemocratic Russian Federation’s Supreme Soviet. I was amazed at this black building called the White House, exploding on its right side by the shelling of Yeltsin forces — in the name of democracy. In 2011, hundreds of militants stormed the parliament of Kuwait, demanding the resignation of Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, who indeed later resigned as prime minister. Was that the start of a huge movement in the Arab world?
In January and February 1997, Bulgaria made world headlines — a rare event — when thousands of protesters laid siege to the parliament, while the country was under hyperinflation, and asking for the government to resign. The protests were led by students.
After a few days, I realized that these events had in fact been quite frequent in history, especially in recent years, though each time happening in different contexts, with different groups, different ideologies, different aims. Many more examples could be found both recently and in earlier times: Burkina Faso in October 2014, Iran in 1908, Serbia in 2000, Canada in 1849. There are, however, major differences: the Taiwan occupation was apparently unique in being long, non-violent, massive and ending peacefully, compared to other national experiences.
THE TAIWAN DIFFERENCE
Storming the legislature was described as an extreme measure by both sides — on one side to denounce the non-respect of representative democracy; on the other, to denounce a “bird-cage democracy” in Taiwan that would lead students to this “last-resort” means to have their voices heard. But, if we bear in mind the existence of so many precedents, occupation of the houses of government are a regular occurrence in the course of democratic development and consolidation, since a perfect and satisfactory representative democracy remains an ideal pretty much everywhere.
And what is legal is not necessarily democratic, just as something which is technically illegal is not necessarily undemocratic. Violence is obviously a sign of failure in discussion and negotiations. But the use of the words “symbolic violence” to qualify a breach of representative democracy is a double-edged sword, as the meaning of the phrase (A necessary evil? A dangerous act?) depends heavily on the political ideology of the one who uses it.
On day two, my field work could start: observing, asking rare questions, mainly listening to what people had to say, taking pictures (lots of pictures), collecting leaflets. And, many more days before the student movement announced its dissolution, thinking about the question: How to collect those historical memories? To the students I met there, and who were sensitive to this question (most were not until the very last moment, after the dissolution was announced), I asked: “We have pictures of the Tiananmen protests and of the Wild Lily movement, but where are the artifacts? Almost none are left.”
If the Sunflower movement belongs to Taiwanese and their history, we as scholars, had a responsibility to collect these visual traces — leaflets, banners, stickers, works of art, posters and so on. So that, regardless of the ideology of future researchers, and hopefully they’ll remain neutral, they will be able to study, display and share those artifacts that made history.
Stephane Corcuff is an associate professor of political science at the university of Lyon, and a researcher at the French Center for the Study of Contemporary China in Taipei.
Warren Hsu (許華仁) sees chocolate making as creating art and performing magic. Zeng Zhi-yuan (曾志元) “talks” to his cacao beans and compares the fermenting process to devotedly caring for a child. Despite their different products and business models, the two helped put Taiwanese chocolate on the map in 2018 at the prestigious International Chocolate Awards’ (ICA) World Finals when Hsu’s Fu Wan Chocolate (福灣) claimed two golds, five silvers and two bronzes, while Zeng took home four golds. That year, Taiwanese chocolatiers burst through the gates with a total of 26 medals, an impressive feat given that many locals don’t
Chen Zhiwu (陳志武) says that the COVID-19 crisis puts into sharp focus that we are in a new cold war, with China and the US being the two protagonists. “It’s almost literally in front of us,” says Chen, Director of Asia Global Institute and Chair Professor of Finance at the University of Hong Kong. Political observers were hesitant, Chen says, even up to the beginning of this year, to confirm a new cold war was underway. “But ... the coronavirus has made clear the clash in values and way of life between what China would like to pursue, and what
SEPT. 14 to SEPT. 20 When then-county commissioner Chen Ding-nan (陳定南) announced that movie theaters in Yilan County no longer needed to play the national anthem before each showing, the authorities were displeased. It was Sept. 13, 1988, over a year after the lifting of martial law, but the decades-old tradition where moviegoers had to stand and sing the anthem still endured. Of course, Chen sugarcoated his decision: “Considering the environment of the theater, the contents of the movies and the reactions of the audience, we believe that it’s actually disrespectful to play the anthem before each showing. We
In Japan — where they take their cats very seriously — they call Yuki Hattori the Cat Savior. He is so popular that he saw 16,000 patients last year, and crowds regularly queue up to hear him talk about neko no kimochi (a cat’s feelings), while people from all over Japan make the pilgrimage to his practice. Sometimes clients turn up from further afield. “One flew in from Iraq for a personal consultation,” Hattori says, “without his cat, due to border quarantines.” In Japan’s rarefied world of cat doctors, the vet Hattori is very much a superstar — but now there