Sunflowers in Springtime: Taiwan’s Crisis and the End of an Era in Cross-Strait Cooperation

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 7

Students occupy Taiwan's Legislative Yuan (Credit: Voice of America)
Students occupy Taiwan's Legislative Yuan (Credit: Voice of America)

With two years left in the second and last term of Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency, Taiwan has been embroiled in a political crisis since March 18 that will have serious, and possibly long-lasting, repercussions on the dynamics within Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT) and the island’s relationship with China.  After a nearly three-week-long standoff at Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, a surprise intervention by Speaker Wang Jin-pyng—who has promised to meet one of the key demands made by the Sunflower Movement—has led to an announcement by the activists that they would vacate the legislature on April 10 and bring to an end one of the island’s most serious political crises in recent years. Despite the apparent success of Wang’s move, his intervention risks reigniting a factional feud within the KMT and is no guarantee that the government will proceed in a way that meets the expectations of the movement, which has vowed to punish the KMT in future elections if the Ma administration fails to deliver.

At the heart of the controversy lies the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) signed between Taiwanese and Chinese negotiators in Shanghai in June 2013 (Xinhua, June 21, 2013). Reached after several rounds of what critics have described as non-transparent talks between the two sides, the CSSTA, a successor to 2010’s landmark Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), opens various sectors—including commerce, telecommunications, construction, distribution, environment, health, tourism, entertainment, culture, sports, transportation and finance—for investment and preferential access. Under the agreement, China would open 80 service sectors to Taiwan, while the latter is to open 64 to China.

Debates in the Legislature

Soon after negotiators from Taiwan’s semi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) returned to Taiwan with the text of the agreement, representatives of civil society, business and academia, as well as some legislators, were taken aback by its breadth and scope. Many Taiwanese feared that the pact would elbow them out of the market, while others pointed to the national security implications of an agreement that exposes sensitive sectors, such as construction and telecommunications, to China. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) overwhelmingly supported calls for a thorough evaluation of the agreement before it could be implemented. A number of KMT legislators also expressed reservations about the pact. For example, KMT caucus whips Lin Hung-chih and Lai Shyh-bao protested that they did not even know what had been negotiated and signed, while KMT Legislator Hsu Hsin-ying said that “They [Executive Yuan] shouldn’t think that whatever they send us, we will just accept the whole package.” For his part, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, also a KMT member, complained that the Mainland Affairs Council had not notified or consulted the legislature as negotiations were being conducted with China (China Times, June 22, 2013).

On June 25, the KMT and the DPP reached an agreement stipulating that the CSSTA should be reviewed clause-by-clause in the Legislative Yuan (LY). On September 25, the two parties agreed to hold a total of 16 public hearings—eight organized by the KMT and eight by the DPP—to gather input from various sectors and to give the administration an opportunity to better explain the ill-understood contents of the agreement.

It was around that time that a crisis within the KMT emerged as President Ma sought to oust Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng over allegations that the speaker had improperly used his influence to interfere in breach-of-trust probe against DPP caucus whip Ker Chien-ming (BBC, September 11, 2013). Wang was eventually cleared of all accusations and retained his KMT membership (SCMP, October 6, 2013). Political analysts observed at the time that Ma’s attempt to sack Wang may have been intended as a warning to other party members who were not toeing the party line on several policies, including the CSSTA (SCMP, September 14, 2013).

As with the ECFA, the Ma administration argued that the CSSTA would be beneficial to Taiwan’s stagnant economy and that it was essential for the island’s ability to sign similar agreement with other economies, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Also like ECFA, both Taipei and Beijing have argued that the agreement was skewed in Taipei’s favor (Xinhua, June 26, 2013; Central News Agency, March 22, 2014).

The process soon ran into difficulties after the KMT held all of its eight hearings within the space of a week, sparking criticism that the expedited process had been little more than show. For its part, the DPP resorted to various tactics to stall the process, blocking the goal of passing the pact by the end of December.  Efforts in the legislature resumed in March, and once again skeptics used legislative tactics to prevent progress. Following days of clashes on the legislative floor, on March 17 KMT Legislator  Ching-chung, the presiding chair of the legislature’s Internal Administrative Committee (who by then had taken over from the aforementioned Lin Hung-chih), declared that as the 90-day review period had expired, the pact, which he likened to an “executive order,” should be considered to have been “reviewed” and be sent directly to a vote later in the week—a vote that the KMT, which enjoys a majority of seats at the legislature, was certain to win, especially as the party’s Central Committee had threatened suspension for any member who voted against the party line. Soon afterwards, the Executive Yuan congratulated Chang for successfully completing the review of the pact (China Post, March 18; Liberty Times, March 18).

Moving the Debate to the Street

The stage was set for escalation, and on the evening of March 18, after two days of protests, a group of students from the Black Island Youth Alliance slipped past the light security at the legislature and stormed into the legislative chamber. By the following morning, several thousand activists, mostly university students, were surrounding the legislature, while approximately 300 of them remained inside. With that, the Sunflower Student Movement was born, and in the following days several tens of thousands of people participated in the occupation, which at the time of writing was continuing.

The Movement accused Ma of intransigence and of bypassing democratic procedures, and in return demanded that the KMT commit anew to a full clause-by-clause review at the legislature and that a legal mechanism be established and institutionalized to monitor any future agreements with China and that such a mechanism be created before a full review of the CSSTA (Sunflower Movement press release; Wall Street Journal, March 30). Those demands were mirrored by the DPP, which rallied to the students’ cause but had not helped to organize the occupation. For several months, the leaders of Black Island, aided by academics, had been organizing protests against the pact, keeping their distance from members of both political parties (author’s interviews with student leaders).

As the occupation continued and with no signs that the government was relaxing its stance, the Movement changed one of its demands. Prior to negotiations with Premier Jiang Yi-huah, who went over to the legislature for talks with student leader Lin Fei-fan, the movement now requested that the CSSTA be sent back altogether and renegotiated, a departure from the initial demand that it be subjected to a line-by-line review. The Lin-Jiang talks quickly foundered and the standoff intensified. By then, public polls showed 70% support for a clause-by-clause review, against 8% who sided with the government and wanted an expedited vote (TVBS, March 21). Meanwhile, 48% of the public supported the students’ occupation, against 40% who disagreed. Support for the agreement dropped 11 points to 28% from a poll in October 2013, while opposition rose 5 points to 48%, with 69% of respondents saying they were not clear about the contents of the CSSTA.

Then, on the night of March 23, thousands of protesters, many of them associated with the Sunflower Movement, burst into the nearby Executive Yuan (EY), the seat of the nation’s Cabinet, prompting the quick deployment of several hundreds of riot police. By 6 a.m. on March 24, the eviction was completed, leaving as many as 174 people injured. Many people deplored the occupation of the EY, or regarded it as a tactical mistake on the part of the movement (author’s interviews with sources within the movement, March 23, 2014). However, these responses were overwhelmed by revulsion at the harsh tactics of the police, who used truncheons and water cannons against the unarmed protesters. As the dust settled, a new opinion poll showed that 68% of respondents now supported cancelling the pact and renegotiating with China, against 18% who supported it as is. Furthermore, 58% supported the occupation of the LY, against 38% who opposed it, an increase of 3% and a drop of 2% respectively. While 58% disagreed with the movement’s occupation of the EY (against 30% who agreed), 56% disagreed with the police’s handling of the situation, against 35% who agreed (TVBS, March 25).

A Rift in the KMT

By then, it was becoming evident that the standoff at the LY was starting to have an impact on politics within the KMT, with a rift between President Ma and Legislative Speaker Wang, created in late 2013 when Ma sought to have Wang expelled from the KMT over allegations of “influence peddling,” widening considerably. Moreover, days after the students had stormed the LY, the Taipei District Court had found chief prosecutor Huang Shyh-ming guilty of illegally passing classified information to President Ma during the investigation, and sentenced him to one year and six months in prison, later commuted to a fine (Central News Agency, March 21).

Increasingly, a more secure Wang emerged as the voice of compromise within the KMT, and the legislative speaker made no secret of his annoyance with government and KMT intransigence. This was highlighted by his decision to skip a meeting called by President Ma to discuss the government’s response to the crisis (Taipei Times, March 22). As attempts to secure talks between Ma and the student leaders collapsed on March 26 (Taipei Times, March 27). In a move that could well have resolved the impasse, the KMT then proposed returning the CSSTA to a legislative committee for a clause-by-clause review, with the condition that Speaker Wang chair the committee. But the DPP, citing possible violations to legislative procedure in having Wang chair the meeting, turned the offer down. Both camps seemed bogged down, with no resolution in sight.

On April 2, the movement rejected an offer by President Ma to hold a national affairs conference on economics and trade instead of a citizens’ constitutional conference (one of their demands) calling the move “typical Ma tactic of superficial promises and substantial lies” (Taipei Times, April 3). The next day, the Cabinet announced that it had agreed to set up an oversight mechanism and would submit draft legislation for the “Statute for the Processing and Monitoring of Agreements between the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area” (Central News Agency (CNA), April 3). However, at President Ma’s request, the CSSTA was to be exempt from that oversight, which goes counter to the movement’s demands (Taipei Times, April 3).

In a surprise announcement, the leadership of the Sunflower Movement said on April 7 that they could vacate the legislature on Thursday 10 April, a move that was understood to reflect a understanding to work with Speaker Wang in resolving the crisis (SCMP, April 7). President Ma invited Wang to work out the differences between the DPP and the KMT so that the oversight bill can be passed during the current legislative session, scheduled to end in late May. However, Premier Jiang raised concerns about awaiting the passing into the oversight mechanism sought by the movement and supported by Wang, saying the opposition could use the process to once again stall implementation of the CSSTA, raising questions about the government’s willingness to meet that crucial demand (CNA, April 7).

No matter how the crisis is resolved, it is likely that President Ma’s reputation, along with that of his administration, has suffered, which might impact the seven-in-one municipal elections in late 2014. Although those elections are predominantly contested over local considerations, there is a possibility that the hit that the KMT has taken over the CSSTA crisis could trickle down to affect voters’ decisions. This could further be exacerbated by the local impact of the CSSTA should it be implemented by then, as many of the local KMT constituencies are among those who fear deleterious consequences, for which the KMT would be blamed.

The crisis has also highlighted and widened the gap between existing factions within the KMT. With presidential and legislative elections in 2016, and with Ma barred from running for a third term, the CSSTA controversy will likely force future KMT candidates to distance themselves from Ma’s policies and to adopt positions that better reflect the wishes of the public. The willingness of Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin, a presidential hopeful on the KMT ticket, to defy the Cabinet by refusing to use force to expel the movement from the legislature was widely regarded as a sign that Hau was distancing himself from the administration (Taipei Times, March 23). Other aspirants, including former vice president Lien Chan’s son, Sean Lien, who will be running for Taipei mayor at the end of 2014, has been largely silent on the matter. Meanwhile, New Taipei City Mayor Eric Chu, another possible candidate for the presidency, has praised the movement for their “very honorable achievement” in raising public awareness about an ill-understood issue (China Post, March 29).


As the Sunflower Movement has made clear, tens of thousands of Taiwanese—including Taiwan’s youth, which has acted with protests nationwide—will take action of they perceive that their interests and way of life are threatened by China. Although there is a practical and economic component to the protest, it is first and foremost predicated on maintaining—or as they see it, reinstating—functioning democratic mechanisms. Perceptions of an erosion of democracy and freedom of expression in Hong Kong since Retrocession in 1997 and the adoption of Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) between the territory and Mainland China in 2003 have also played a key role in raising apprehensions about closer economic and cultural ties with China (author’s observations and interviews with activists; see Taiwan News, March 30).

The CSSTA has awakened public fears of China, which cannot be dissociated from increasingly unfavorable perceptions of China within the Asia-Pacific. Therefore, a future KMT candidate who fails to address those fears and to promise policies that are not seen as threatening Taiwan’s sovereignty will stand a good chance of being defeated by the DPP, which has makes sovereignty a cornerstone of its policy platform. During the 2014 and 2016 campaigns, there is likely to be a correction in the KMT’s China policy, one that will impose further friction on the pace of cross-strait liberalization.