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.
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.
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?
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.