Democracy on the brink: turmoil in Taiwan

By Carla Hung:

POST Taiwan Article - Carla Hung 2nd edit - sm.
Protesters occupying parliament (photo by J. Michael Cole)

An unprecedented protest, now dubbed the ‘Sunflower Student Movement’ or ‘Occupy Taiwan Legislature’, broke out in Taiwan on March 18, followed by a violent suppression in the midnight hours of March 23, during which the riot police forcibly evicted the protesting students who had broken in and stayed around the Executive Yuan (Cabinet), the highest administrative body of the Republic of China. The brutal assault by the riot police targeting unarmed citizens shocked Taiwanese society, which has long enjoyed peace and prosperity, exposing the internal division and deepening conflict within the island against a controversial trade agreement with China.

Waking up to the Crisis

The crisis was initiated by the improper review of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed in June, 2010. Angered by the unilateral move of the Ma Ying-jeou administration and his party regarding negotiations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC), tens of thousands of students in the capital carried out 23 days of sit-in protests and occupied the Legislative Yuan (Parliament), in which the March 23 clash erupted. The conflict and criticism heightened when the president and premier failed to respond to the appeals of the demonstrators, spurring more than 500,000 people to take to the streets on March 30. The Movement not only shook up the political structure, but also brought about more civil unrest that followed.

Selling Taiwan or helping Taiwan?

The Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) itself may appear to be legitimate given the increasing business interaction between Taiwan and Mainland China, but the underlying political ambition is worrying. Conflicts and crises between the Republic of China (ROC) and PRC have existed for more than six decades. As a political entity claimed by China to be an indispensable part of its territory, Taiwan has an ambiguous status in the international community. When Ma took office in 2009, Taipei’s tense relations with Beijing largely relaxed with his declaration of a ‘diplomatic truce’ and ‘no unification, no independence and no use of force’.[1] In other words, his policies focus on maintaining peaceful cross-strait relations on the basis of the 1992 Consensus: ‘one China, respective interpretations’.[2] As a result of the friendly and cooperative political relations, peoples on both sides now have even closer exchange in business, education, culture and various areas. However, there is always a concern among people in Taiwan about the opening of the market to the Chinese Mainland, and more deeply, a fear of losing freedom, democracy and sovereignty when they become too dependent on their strong neighbour.

Trust crisis facing the pro-China ruling party

The Sunflower Student Movement has opened Pandora’s box. Citizen journalism thrives and grassroots media outlets stand up against biased media conglomerates that ‘have substantial business relations with China or seek to develop them’[3]. These citizen journalists take an active role in informing the public of the pressing issues juggled by the government and in helping shape public opinion to urge the government to listen to the voice of the people. As a result, frequent protests erupt regarding issues such as the trade agreements, construction of nuclear power plants, labour rights, social injustice and environmental protection, all demonstrating the increasing awareness among the general public and their dwindling trust in political leaders.

Nevertheless, under such tremendous social and political pressure, when the Sunflower Student Movement was drawing to an end, the leader of the ruling party, Ma Ying-jeou, who is also the President of the Republic of China (Taiwan), made a remark during a CSIS video conference on April 9 that his administration ‘do not exclude political topics if the people of Taiwan support it.[4]’ This statement directly contradicted the appeal of the protesters who demanded a slowdown in the negotiations with Beijing. It also demonstrated the intention of Ma to defend his power and stance by taking a stronger position in cross-strait relations, sending a clear message to Beijing that the situation is still in his control and he is willing to take cross-strait cooperation to the next level.[5] Being well-known for his pro-China policies, the two-term president, whose approval rating has hit a historic low of 9.2%, continues to turn a blind eye to people’s demands [6]. Since he will not be able to run for a third term and it is likely that the opposition party, Democratic Progressive Party, will win the 2016 election, Ma is seeking a closer relationship and an eventual peace agreement with the Chinese administration before his term ends.

The recent turmoil certainly gives the PRC leadership a new perspective and pushes them to rethink their strategy towards Taiwan. The Sunflower Student Movement marked the rise of a more independence-inclined third power, the citizens and the younger generation who have been enraged by the obstinate, autocratic KMT and the incompetent, marginalised DPP. With growing support for independence and resentment towards the KMT as well as China, it will be more difficult and complicated than ever for the PRC to dissolve Taiwan’s independence threat through political influence, business means and media manipulation.


Being de facto independent, Taiwan has always been a beacon of freedom and democracy for many in the Chinese mainland, including those in Hong Kong, Tibet and regions of ethnic minorities. The Sunflower Student Movement is yet another great example. This is also a significant reason why Communist China has to contain pro-independence force in Taiwan, especially when there are more and more riots happening within the mainland. However, in a world where almost every nation finds it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore a powerful China and its influence, it is ever more challenging for Taiwan to strike a balance between political and economic goals as it struggles to safeguard its sovereignty. Faced with a seemingly friendly business partner who can take over Taiwan at any moment, the next step of the Taiwanese people will be crucial to the existence of the Republic of China and the political map of the People’s Republic of China.



Carla Hung holds an MA in International Relations from the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and is currently a translator and interpreter in Taiwan.



[1] ‘President Ma’s Inaugural Address’,, 20 May 2008.
[2] ‘President Ma meets delegation from US Center for Strategic and International Studies’,, 24 August 2011.
[3] ‘Blanking Out’,, 31 March 2014.
[4] ‘President Ma’s Remarks at the Videoconference with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’,, 9 April 2014.
[5] ‘A political war will decide Taiwan’s future’,, 8 May 2014.
[6] ‘Ma’s approval rating is only 9.2%’,, 15 September 2013.

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