Student sunflower' movement protesters stage their rally in Taipei last March against the China-Taiwan trade pact. Photo: AP

One year on: impact of ‘sunflower’ movement protests in Taiwan continues to blossom

The island’s political landscape has shifted dramatically in the 12 months since students first occupied Taiwan’s parliament in an audacious protest against trade links with China

A year after students occupied Taiwan’s parliament in an audacious protest against trade links with China, the island’s political landscape has shifted dramatically.

The ruling Kuomintang party (KMT) was routed in local election in November and there is new caution over warming mainland ties.

About 200 students and activists broke through security lines and seized the main parliamentary chamber on March 18 in what became known as the “sunflower” movement, with thousands of supporters rallying on the streets of the capital, Taipei.

The demonstrations were sparked by a service sector trade pact with China that protesters said had been agreed secretly.

Their anger reflected wider discontent over ties with China, which have improved under President Ma Ying-jeou, who came to power in 2008.

While the thaw has led to trade agreements and a tourist boom, some feel ordinary people have seen little benefit and there are growing fears over Beijing’s influence.

China and Taiwan split in 1949 after a civil war, but Beijing still considers the self-ruled island part of its territory awaiting reunification and has not written off using force should Taipei declare independence.

By bringing those anxieties to the fore, the movement had a dramatic impact.

“The fast-paced exchanges between the two sides [China and Taiwan] in the past seven years have slowed and halted amid concerns over Taiwan’s security, manifested by the movement,” said Tung Chen-yuan, a political analyst at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University.

“The ‘sunflower’ movement was a turning point in the development of cross-Strait ties.”

The movement had also encouraged people to express their wider frustrations with the KMT, said Wang Yeh-lih, a political science professor at the National Taiwan University.

“The KMT was concerned about issues such as the service trade pact and internationalisation, but the people cared about their pockets and housing prices ... public discontent that had been accumulating was set off.”

The Beijing-friendly KMT suffered its worst-ever local election defeat in November – a result seen as a key barometer of the next year presidential race.

It has since been careful to couch its approach to mainland relations.

“The movement dealt a big blow to the KMT... It triggered a domino effect against the government” over controversial policies, said Wu Yu-sheng, a KMT lawmaker.

Politicians now pay “more attention to the opinions of netizens, young people and civil groups in making policies. It is good for democracy.”

The traditionally China-sceptic opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) benefitted from the election result, but is keen not to be seen as complacent in the face of an empowered electorate.

“Public sentiments are against the KMT, but there are risks as well as opportunities for us,” in the next year polls, said DPP spokesman Cheng Yun-peng.

The DPP now has to tread a line between cross-Strait trade, which could benefit Taiwan, and voters’ wishes.

As the effects of the movement continue to echo through politics, protest leaders say they could never have predicted its impact.

“None of us had expected that we could actually seize the parliament,” said Lin Fei-fan, a leading activist.

“We felt strongly that the service trade pact could hurt Taiwan’s economy and impact on our democracy. We decided to take the matter into our own hands.”

Protesters adopted the sunflower saying that it was symbolic of their wish to shine a light on the trade deal and their hopes of a bright future.

The 24-day occupation ended on April 10 after parliament speaker Wang Jin-pyng promised not to review the service trade pact until a law to monitor such agreements with China was introduced – a key demand of the protesters.

Taiwan has signed 21 trade and other deals with China under Ma.

“We think the Ma government is leaning too close to Beijing,” said activist Lai Ping-yu, spokeswoman for Black Island Nation Youth Front, one of the civil groups behind the movement.

“We don’t oppose trade exchanges, but Taiwan should not rely too much on China and put all its eggs in one basket.”

Campaigners have said it is important to keep up the pressure.

Rallies are planned to mark the anniversary of the occupation and renew calls for the passing of the oversight bill on cross-Strait agreements.

“The ‘sunflower’ movement demonstrated the power of the people who were willing to stand up and support us,” Lin said.

“The movement is ongoing and we are pushing for more reforms.”

Lai said she hoped that young people would now turn their attention to next year, when Ma would have to step down after serving two terms.

“I think young people are no longer indifferent to politics and so many of them came out to vote in the November elections, which affected the outcome, she said. “I think their votes will have some impact next year.”