‘Sunflower’ Students Change History

Read an eBook about the last 21 hours of the Sunflower Movement occupancy.

The Sunflower movement made history this month. As Taiwan’s government was deviating from the will of its people, unarmed students disrupted the legislature by occupying it for three weeks. An unplanned, flash-mob protest met outside the legislature on March 18. Both the students and the legislature’s Speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, took peaceful action and the situation resolved without violence. Wang promised to require transparency for any future trade agreements and the students promised to leave peacefully. After three weeks, the students kept their promise, leaving only a sign translated “Congress of the People” at the front of the chamber and, on the Speaker’s desk, a widely used academic book from the late 19th century with collection of stories on political corruption.

Now, non-violent protesters who highlight “Constitutional compliance”, “individual liberty”, and “national sovereignty” have proven that they can remain non-violent, if the police do not use force to remove them. These actions from the students and Speaker Wang directly contradicts unproven claims from the US Department of Homeland Security, that these three talking points of “Constitution, liberty, and sovereignty” indicated “domestic terrorism” threats and is a historic argument that may eventually be used in international courts to argue in defense of peaceful protests, even if they peacefully occupy government buildings.

As the students left the chamber and appeared on the street, a huge gathering greeted them with a stage, a band, and speakers. Taipei’s chief of police, Fang Yang-ning, had promised not to expel the protesters by force, but then reportedly broke his promise within a few hours. The public responded by surrounding the police headquarters in Taipei. Fang quickly appeared, corrected a previous misstatement about an assembly permit having been revoked near the legislature, offered his verbal resignation, and protesters began to peacefully disperse shortly after; though the mayor rejected his resignation the next day on the grounds that a mob should not be able to force the resignation of a city official.

Here we have a prefect “control” and “experiment” in society, police, and politics. When the people gather to non-violently protest and highlight constitution, liberty, and sovereignty talking points, they remain peaceful if they are not dispersed by force and when the government agrees to comply with their own Constitution and the will of the people. But within the same 24 hours, with the same gathering, in the same city, when the same government breaks its own promises and uses force against the same peaceful protest, conflict arises. There is no other stark contrast of events known to be so clear in history. The conclusion in this incident is plain: Conflict between a government and people peacefully gathering to discuss constitution, liberty, and sovereignty now indicates that the government was most likely responsible, both for provoking the people to protest by ignoring the will of the people governed and by prematurely using force to disperse those protests in response.

According to one unnamed student who initially entered the legislature, the group of 200 students had been protesting at various locations over various issues for over a year. For the recent seven months they had been focusing on a specific “secret black box” trade agreement between Taiwan (coincidentally a US military ally) and China. The students wanted a trade agreement, but not secret meetings between the countries.

According to the informant, on the evening of March 18, students gathered outside Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan. In an unplanned, flash-mob resolution, they decided to take the legislative chamber, without any plan other than to raise awareness of their concerns. The 200 students contacted their friends over the phone and within minutes, 5,000 sympathizers arrived on the scene. Known for his tenacity, Chen Wei-ting broke a window on the first floor, walked around, and opened the door. The 200 students rushed in, the police were overwhelmed, and the unarmed students took the chamber.

Because of typical legislature rules, the police were not allowed to enter the chamber, even to remove the students. Entering the floor of a  legislature often requires special permission, in this case, from Speaker Wang. Through the three weeks of the occupancy, Wang never granted the police such permission. Some in the US have criticized this peaceful decision, claiming that an occupancy could never happen in US Congress. These critics seem unaware how different Taiwan is from the US in culture, puppet politics, and other aspects, which are explained in a separate article elaborating on Taiwan’s “puppet democracy”.

Thinking fast, still with no plan, and expecting to be expelled by midnight, the students held a “two minute” conference and decided to use the legislature’s chairs to barricade the doors. Over the next four hours, police gathered outside, with the growing crowd of 5,000 plus supporters on the street. In the early hours of the morning, the police tried to retake the chamber, knowing they could not enter. They pushed on chairs as students pushed back. This happened three times, about ten to twenty minutes each time, then the police would leave. Police had hoped to grab the students near the door and pull them out, but with the size of the legislature, this was not possible.

Late that morning, students walked around to the back foyer, still controlled by police, and walked upstairs to take the second floor. The police in the foyer did not seize the students because they would have had to move any apprehended students through a growing mob of angry protesters, numbering in the thousands. The students made a quick agreement with the police that for every student taken from inside, more students from the mob outside would enter to take their place. The situation resulted in a standoff where police controlled the external corridors to regulate traffic and keep general peace.

Later that day, students set up a system of medical supplies and security. The following day, several doctors volunteered to help and the students set up a system for supplying food. The entire incident was unplanned. Students improvised from one moment to the next. The world watched and learned about peaceful democracy as these peaceful protesters were joined by lawyers, professors, and student demonstrators from previous incidents such as Tiananmen Square.

Overwhelming support flowed in from around the island. University presidents dismissed classes and excused absences. Teachers hired buses so students could join the demonstration with travel expenses paid. Companies donated food, beverages, toiletries, clean underwear, medical supplies, even USB chargers and batteries. At least three polls reported by the Taipei Times indicate a conservative estimate of 60-80% support for the students (poll 1poll 2poll 3.)

Constitutional background helps the situation come into focus. Taiwan’s Constitution defines mainland China, as well as other territories such as Mongolia, as their own. Most of the Taiwanese don’t care to enforce this claim, extending to most every politician and bureaucrat. However, when another occupying force, such as the Communist Party in Beijing, controls Taiwanese land and aims nearly 2,000 missiles at the island, that force is regarded as hostile and therefore an enemy. Holding secret meetings with an enemy during time of war could be a form of treason, even if those secret meetings include negotiating trade agreements with the enemy.

Whether this could be punishable under Taiwan’s Constitutional law remains to be determined by Taiwan’s High Court. However, it should be noted that the student’s concern, intentional or otherwise, approaches Constitutional questions—is this a situation where the people must defend their own Constitution from their government?

Many experts agree that it is and that, while the police may argue criminal law against the students, the students are able to argue Constitutional law both in their defense and against the government, including the police who defend actions of the government that run contraire to the Constitution. There are some rumblings among the legal community in Taiwan concerning bringing Constitution-based action against some of the head officials, including possible treason charges against Taiwan’s president, Ma. But these rumblings have yet to be confirmed.

There are two other Constitutional matters that help explain angst among the Taiwan electorate. First, legislation does not originate in Taiwan’s elected Congress, as it does in the United States. Instead, it originates in the appointed, non-elected executive cabinet, as is the system in Communist China. If the legislature does not vote specifically against the proposed legislation, it becomes law anyway.

In other words, a Congressional majority is not required to create a new law, but to reject a law created by the President-appointed cabinet. This arguably defines Taiwan as having a “puppet democracy”. It has resulted in a number of policy problems and midnight announcements of new laws, many of which make normal business practices illegal with the only reasonable explanation that it supports companies owned by the ruling political party, the KMT.

Frustration with the Executive Yuan’s de facto “absolute power” over the legislative process explains why a group of students left the Legislative Yuan and occupied the Executive Yuan on March 23. Wei Yang was accused as having organized the invasion of the EY, though the court dismissed the charges on the grounds that there was no evidence. The Deputy Secretary General is now most known for having complained that the students (falsely) allegedly “ate his suncakes“. Wei Yang left for the United States and, at the time of writing this article, was making appearances in and around George Washington University to explain the goals of Taiwan’s Sunflower movement, speaking about freedom and democracy.

The second Constitutional matter is that Taiwan is not typically recognized as a country. People often ask why and the answer is “fear of China”. Even mail couriers list Taiwan as “Taiwan (Province of China)” so that Communist China does not retaliate by blocking those couriers’ shipments to the mainland. The US position on whether Taiwan is a country is ambiguous enough to raise questions of whether US officials fear retaliation from China.

But, in the end, the problem with Taiwan being recognized as a country comes from Taiwan’s Constitution: defining the mainland as their own territory. This creates two main problems: Recognizing a state that claims vast amounts of uncontrolled territory creates diplomatic and international problems, including problem for mail couriers. This problem is more of a practical nature than being about any specific ideology of which nation ought to control which hills and rivers. The second problem, however, comes from a complex grudge within Beijing Communists.

Communist Beijing specifically opposes any law that defines their claimed territory as belonging to any state but “China”. Because Taiwan’s Constitution claims the land as belonging to Taiwan (legally ‘Republic of China’), Communist Beijing does not retaliate. While Beijing objects to Taiwan’s government controlling the island of Formosa (Taiwan’s main island), Beijing still views China as one country with a conflict between two forces. As long as both forces (Communists and Taiwan) agree that there is one China, Beijing is not deeply offended.

The West rarely understands that China’s Asian pride would be “offended” if Taiwan (ROC) were to redraw the map, being yet one more State that defined “China” as not possessing Formosa. China has aimed its 1,800 and growing number of missiles at Taiwan as a standing threat to deter Taiwan from declaring itself independent from the mainland.

So, Taiwan is not recognized as a country by the United Nations nor other authorities, largely because of practical and diplomatic contradiction issues stemming from Taiwan defining itself as “owning” mainland China. But, changing Taiwan’s Constitution to fix this would result in a deeper “offended” attitude from Chinese Communists, who they claim they would, thus, attack Taiwan.

The Taiwanese are not likely to be deterred by China’s missiles and may declare independence so that history can move past the past in which Beijing remains entrenched. But a Constitutional referendum has yet to take place. In short: Why isn’t Taiwan recognized as a “country”?—Because of their Constitution.

This, combined with the problem of Taiwan’s Congress not needing to approve nor being able to introduce new legislation, the people of Taiwan have been calling for a Constitutional referendum for quite some time. These demands are increasing as the nation becomes more and more democratic.

In 1996, Taiwan held their first presidential election. China launched a missile across the island of Formosa. When it detonated near an outlying island, the explosion rattled the windows of local residents, as one student occupying the legislature recalls. Mitch Yang, a Taiwanese with credentials at NASA, was in the US at the time. He appeared on ABC, NBC, and CBS to explain the incident and the protests held at the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles by a local community of Taiwanese. According to Yang, a car tried to run him over. After researching a false license plate on the vehicle, and listening to reports on the police scanner, he and his network concluded that the Chinese government had used local mafia in Chinatown to have him killed.

As Yang further explains, China is paranoid that other nations are trying to take over their country.

Old East Asian culture worships their own absolute power. If, for example, Chinese citizens become happier for any reason other than their government, that government will feel threatened. North Korea is similar in that cult-like praise is given to photos of the three patriarchs of the Kim dynasty, hanging by law in almost every building. The obsession with total control somewhat resembles “bubble” parenting often seen in closed religious circles, where high school students who learn to think independently—even if their new articulation agrees with the beliefs of their parents—are viewed by their parents as “having been brainwashed into rebellion”.

With China fearing any and all contributions to their country that do not come from their government, Beijing’s version of the story is that the “West is trying to invade”. According to Yang, China’s solution to this paranoia-driven “fear of invasion” is to completely control any and all land that China ever once controlled in their nation’s history. This was part of Beijing’s purpose of the “nine-dash line” on an East Asian map printed in newer Chinese passports.

Communist China has an imagined fear that the “West” is trying to invade their country, merely because they can’t maintain “absolute control” over ever sect of society—and their solution is to grab for more “absolute control” in their region.

Power for a Beijing Communist may be explained by the alcoholic who says that alcohol is the “medicine” that treats alcoholism. The Beijing solution to lack of power is more power. It hasn’t seemed to occur to Beijing that 1. their fears are irrational and untrue—which they would know if they stepped outside of their country more often—and 2. that if they can’t control their own territory, they probably will have more, not fewer, control-related problems if they have more territory to control. Insanity, though brilliant, often misses the most basic of calculations.

In 1996, Taiwan’s government stood up to China. A missile was launched, windows rattled, but China changed nothing.

Mitch Yang and a local Taiwanese community stood up to China in the US and someone tried to have local mafia kill him, but he survived. China changed nothing.

In 2014, a group of unarmed Taiwanese college students, accidentally enforcing the complex technicalities of their Constitution, merely by following the conviction in their hearts, took over the chamber of their rogue legislature without planning. The police pushed on the chairs, but could not enter the chamber. China changed nothing.

Wei Yang was groundlessly accused by his own government, but he left for the US to spread truth and freedom. China changed nothing.

Local mafia in Taipei, notoriously affiliated with the ruling KMT political party, made several appearances to incite violence among the students outside the occupied legislature, but, even after a lot of commotion, they left without incident. China changed nothing.

If Taiwan were to hold a Constitutional referendum, and if that referendum removed Taiwan’s conflicting territorial claim with China, Beijing, no longer having a reason for dispute, would likely be angry. Even if Beijing took action, they would create more problems, have more difficulty controlling territory, distract their army’s forces from the ongoing rebellions within their borders, give their neighbors the opportunity to devour a regional menace like ants on a dead cockroach, and, in the end, China would change nothing. I hope it doesn’t come to that.

A new precedent has been set before the world—that peaceful supporters of liberty, constitutional governance, and national sovereignty can win bloodless victories when force is not used against them. This new example in history indicts many tyrants and provocative authorities, including Chinese Communists. Even now, China can change nothing.

Democracy, liberty, and rule of constitutional law are bursting forth in Taiwan as the old power mongers drown in their flooding trenches. Though China changed nothing, the unarmed students of the “Sunflower Movement” have changed everything.

The students didn’t waste time on the chamber floor. They formed a think tank of doctors, lawyers, professors, and professionals. Conversations were rich. More truth was spoken from the platform in three weeks than in the history of most republics. Before the student’s left, they cleaned up, opened the doors, replaced the chairs, a group of Christians among them prayed, and leaders gave a final speech to clarify their purpose to the world.

After bowing, and with sunflowers in hand, they walked out of the chamber and into the annals of history.

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