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Why Americans Should Care About Taiwan's Sunflower Movement

Sorting the English-Language News


Early in March 2014, I lunched with a writer who is on a research visit in Berkeley. His career achievements, writing about subjects historically marginalized by the PRC government, have turned him into a globetrotter, including making sojourns in Taiwan. I, a Taiwanese immigrant who spent most of her life in the U.S., took my colleague’s writings as a sign that he leans towards idealistic support of Taiwan sovereignty.i However, when I asked him for an opinion of what would be of Cross-Strait relations 25 years from now, he answered with an expression of certainty that Taiwan will unify with China. Given the political reality, the PRC government will dominate the terms of reintegration, which means that in my colleague’s version of the future, Taiwanese people will engage in a struggle against full integration, similar to what is happening in Hong Kong. Although it is difficult to predict exactly the future of Cross-Strait relations, an image of a PRC-controlled Taiwan was too bleak for me to accept. Could the people of Taiwan take backwards steps to exist as subjects of a one-party regime so soon after achieving a multi-party democracy in 2000? Furthermore, how will a young, democratic, and rule-of-law society such as Taiwan exist constructively under the direction of a political system that privileges party relations over law?

The above overture, personal and somewhat emotionally charged, is meant to draw the attention of my current community, U.S. media consumers. I write this essay to ask the U.S. audience to look beyond mainstream media’s reduction of the recent civil unrests in Taiwan– through its under-reporting of the substance and over-emphasis of the aesthetics of mass protests. I will begin by weaving in to the historical review a bit of my family’s migration story. I hope that my family’s humble migration story and timeline will help to make reading Taiwan’s political history more accessible. I also hope that the review will begin to reveal the link between identity, sovereignty and democracy in the Taiwan case. Following such a review, I will sort English-language news reports and essays published by mainstream media between 19 March to 10 April, which is the period when Taiwanese students effectively occupied Taiwan’s national legislative building. The initial motive behind the student-led Sunflower Movement was to protest against certain government officials fast-tracking an omnibus trade agreement with China (CSSTA). A selection of news reportsii and op-ed essaysiii will be grouped by themes; these themes are developed to discuss the biases or obfuscations that hide what is actually a coherent story of an ongoing struggle to preserve Taiwanese people’s access to democracy. Thirdly, I will provide a map of English-language reports and essays that better describes and explains the concerns that sparked the mass social movement. The conclusion argues that those of us living in the U.S. should care about the Sunflower Movement because poor media coverage of important events in other democracies becomes a contributing factor to the decline in public discourse about American democracy.

How democracy was born in Taiwan: A quick historical review

In 1949, the Communist Chinese defeated the Nationalists Chinese (KMT). General Chiang Kai-shek and KMT officials were forced to leave China and re-establish their party’s headquarters in Taiwan. It is because post-WWII settlement required Japan to surrender its colonial control of Taiwan the U.S. government backed KMT’s occupation of the island. This move simultaneously served to secure U.S. military interest in the region. The KMT occupation ushered in displaced Mainland Chinese, KMT sympathizers, in the millions. The mass immigration shifted the political demographics in Taiwan, but did not erode the development of Taiwanese identity of which historians have identified to exist as early as the Qing period. General Chiang’s declaration of Taipei as a temporary, wartime capital, implied he and his top party officials intended to re-gain control of China in the foreseeable future. However, the reality of KMT’s re-ascent to power in China has always been far from the party elites’ expectations. Instead, KMT resorted to govern Taiwanese people with martial law and authoritarian plutocracy while claiming to the international community that it is the sole, legitimate Chinese state. The party operated with a mixture of Leninist and organized-crime style leadership. During my toddler to early childhood years, two major events contributed to KMT intra-party reform:

a) In 1978, after Chiang Kai-shek’s death, the general’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo was promoted to head the KMT. Chiang Ching-kuo’s education and personal history include extensive education in Communist ideologies, overseeing bottom-up approaches to governance, and applying policies that aggressively challenged the concept of class. President Chiang stood apart from General Chiang’s on the issue of how to do politics, which made him an important agent in initiating intraparty reform. He allowed KMT to engage in more inclusive political relations with Taiwanese natives.

b) KMT members were forced to confront the fact that their strong claims to both China and Taiwan were becoming invalid. Following improved relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, 1979 U.S.-Taiwan Relations Act declared that there could be only one Chinese state. Therefore, the U.S. will no longer recognize Taiwan as ROC (Republic of China). The 1979 Act, and subsequent political U.S. legislative acts, placed Taiwan in a precarious, ambiguous at best, security situation in Cross-Strait relations.

During the earliest period of KMT party reform, everyday existence for native Taiwanese people remained limiting and, for some, life threatening.iv For Taiwan native intellectuals and political activists, life was riddled with potential and actual threats of arrest, torture, and capital punishment by the KMT (see interview by Julie Wu). People with aboriginal or native heritage struggled to have a legitimate voice in the political arena as the outspoken and politically effective were considered threats to KMT rule. Corruption in the government was palpable and was designed to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of KMT officials. Han-Chinese history and culture was forced on the native Taiwanese– I was educated in a public school system that, although provided me with great training in some subjects, was focused on teaching me KMT propaganda. The Minnan dialect, my mother’s first language, was banned from use in official media. It was under these conditions that my parents believed moving out of the country could bring a brighter future for my brother and me.

In 1986, some years before KMT underwent a more significant transformation and before visible changes took place in Taiwanese society, my family and I immigrated to the U.S. What was to become of Taiwan between 1986 and 2000, between my family’s expatriation and when the first non-KMT president was democratically elected, was an incredible story of what results when an authoritarian regime decide to do politics with a wider constituency. Intra-party divisions and the party’s fear of losing popularity domestically and abroad led to the recruitment of Taiwan natives from a variety of socio-political backgrounds. The injection of diversity contributed to further splitting of KMT’s membership and the divisions contributed to the rise of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (for a summary of DPP history, see Shelley Rigger’s 2001 article).

As an immigrant in the U.S., I was obligated to focus on assimilating to American culture and to ignore the changes occurring in the Taiwanese society. What changes I did understand were told to me, not by my parents, through the discontinuous and biased lens of English-language television and newspapers. In the 1980s and 1990s, U.S. television news reports habitually underscored the spectacle of Taiwan’s parliamentary meetings; scenes of violent and explosive physical altercations were played repeatedly. Ultimately, media’s ability to turn politics in Taiwan politics into a spectacle invites the American public to dismiss Taiwanese movement towards democracy as unworthy of study, examination, or comparison.

The Sunflower Movement fights to preserve democracy from 19 March to 10 April 2014

In mid-March, an event akin to the 2011 mass demonstration in Tahrir Square took place in Taiwan. The initial 19 March event involved college-going students bypassing security personnel by climbing the walls and through windows to occupy the parliamentary chamber of the national legislative building. On a diligently maintained weblog, Democracy at 4 am,v the motive behind students breaking into a government building was summarized in the following passage:

The [Cross-strait trade -- CSSTA] Agreement was rushed through the Legislature without an item-by-item review as originally envisaged in an inter-party agreement. [The Black Island Youth] rejects the government’s lack of transparency and responsiveness to the people’s concerns. The occupation of the Legislative Yuan has become a people’s movement to wrest power back to the people.

For days after the initial break- and sit-in, mainstream U.S. media remained relatively aloof to the situation in Taiwan. CNN and AP began to publish reports when student protestors clashed more severely with Taipei police force during the storming of the executive building on 23 As the month of March came to a close, U.S. reporting on the protest remained scant. The variety of perspectives, from opposition parties, civil rights groups, and student protestors, that constitute the debate about KMT party’s unilateral assent to the CSSTA was collapsed by U.S. media into a series of visually and affectively arousing images of conflict between students and the government. Even after the occupation ended, on 10 April, mainstream news in the U.S. provided minimal insight into the diversity of players involved in the protest, the negotiations between the legislators and students, and a translation of the contents of the CSSTA.

If a reader desires more information, s/he would need to actively search through non-mainstream media for quality reporting, read Chinese-language news, or know how to follow the social media posts and micro-blogs written by protestors and overseas Taiwanese committed to tracking the protest. While this essay reviews and critiques how English-language media reports the Sunflower Movement, it also provides an alternative. Near the conclusion, I organize a list of online and print literature into a media road map for the U.S. audience to understand the substantive concerns of the protest against the CSSTA. The hope is that this essay will inspire my American community to view mainstream media more critically and reflect on concerns that are shared by many democratic societies.

The “beauty” of mass demonstration and the “ugliness” of students clashing with police

Between 30 March and 10 April, U.S. mainstream media reported the movement sporadically, tuning-into Taiwan more closely when the occupation grew to a massive march involving hundreds of thousands of people. A typical digital photo of the protest depicts a sea of young Asian faces accented by yellow sunflowers, colorful umbrellas, headbands and black-colored attire. The photos almost always fill the browser screen, nearly to the edges, yet they are supported by a paucity of text and disconnected narratives. Huffington Post and a handful of online publications considered their reporting duties fulfilled by posting images and merely remarking about the visual attractiveness of the demonstration (see A, B, and C, and D). The images chosen for the American audience are certainly compelling, however, they are almost identical to the photos chosen to depict mass civilian protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Cambodia, Turkey and Thailand. What do these memes convey to the American public about the actual conflict that moved Taiwanese citizens, by the hundreds of thousands, to the streets? What do photographs containing repetitive images convey with regards to specific problems and benefits that can result from Taiwan agreeing to an omnibus and intimate economic arrangement with China’s Goliath economy?

While some U.S. media reports gaze at the beauty of a mass demonstration decorated with sunflowers, other media reports present images of the ugliness, lawlessness, and ineffectiveness of students clashing with authorities (see E, F, and G). The proliferation of enlarged images juxtaposing poor translation of the substance and reasoning behind the mass movement reveals that the U.S. media lacks the will to provide quality reporting about other democracies. Superficial and image-heavy presentation of the Sunflower Movement is evidence of the managerial paradigmvii of U.S. media– other democracies are only as relevant/coherent as it can prove to American media consumers to be visually stimulating. By privileging aesthetics and consumers’ affective response over quality reporting, media serves less or not at all for the more principled mission of free press that is presupposed in a people-based democracy.

Confused mainstream media: Is Taiwan a part of China, or not?

According to a 2013 annual report to the United States Congress “Taiwan is the principal security partner in the [Northeast Asian] region that is willing and able to develop the kind of force needed for networked, integrated deep interdiction operations in a [restricted environment or denial zone].” This statement expresses several ideas about the relationship between Taiwan, China, and the U.S. One, it recognizes Taiwan as a state actor separate from China. Second, it reveals U.S. security experts’ concern that the U.S. suffers a weak position in key areas of the Northeast Asia region. Thirdly, all things considered, the report acknowledges Taiwan as an ally to the U.S. Furthermore, Taiwanese citizens hold internationally recognized passports, separate from passports held by PRC citizens. While the 2013 report seems to make clear the relationship between Taiwan and China, mainstream media demonstrates a lack of consensus and promotes confusion. Public Radio International’s, a lead competitor of NPR, made an embarrassing admission after releasing a 26 March audio report: “the original version…inaccurately described the relationship between Taiwan and China, and mis-identified the affiliation of Ketty Chen.”

I collected and reviewed English-language reports (less than 30 report were published by U.S. regional newspapers, only a handful more were published by popular/dominate online news organizations) on the student protest against the CSSTA. What emerged was that mainstream media fails to grasp and explain accurately two basic realities:

a) The current and official territorial status of Taiwan, and

b) Whether the Taiwanese government and people have de facto agency in making policy decisions about economy, sovereignty, etc.

One example of how U.S. media poorly informs or misinform readers can be found in a flippantly titled essay, “Taiwan’s Flawed Sunflower Movement,” written by Paula Martinez Gutierrez, a student of Brown University. This prominently featured essay authored by an undergraduate student is similar, in terms of the level of analysis and bias, to a handful of U.S. essays and articles that use an economic perspective to write prescriptively about what Taiwanese people should or should not do with respect to the CSSTA. The mainline criticism of the Sunflower Movement from the example essay is…

[The Sunflower Movement] seems to create the illusion that Taiwan does not need China in its economic life. The reality is that Taiwan should keep working to improve its relations with China. Instead of dismissing this fact, Taiwan should focus more on maintaining its autonomous status while negotiating with Beijing.

With an inadequate understanding of the objectives of the student protest, by using incorrect terms such as “autonomous status” to refer to Taiwan, and by dismissing Taiwanese citizens’ awareness of cross-strait security issues, this essay makes Chinaviii, particularly the Chinese economy, the focus of what is suppose to be a domestic conflict in Taiwan. A combination of the misuse of economic concepts as an analytic tool and ignorance towards Taiwan’s sovereign status conveys to U.S. readers a mistaken reality, which is that China’s Goliath economy dictates, in an unqualified way, Taiwan’s domestic politics. U.S. editorial writers with this perspective tend to criticize Taiwanese student protestors as imprudent and dismiss the Sunflower Movement as flawed. This type of media perspective portrays Taiwanese citizens as having no fundamental awareness, or rights for that matter, in helping to realize unique solutions to domestic problems arising from foreign relations. In actuality, Taiwanese people are incredibly involved and dedicated in maintaining their young democracy. The 2013 annual report to U.S. Congress describes accurately, and with nuance, about Taiwan’s internal politics and role in the Northeast Asian region. The report summarizes the competing views and approaches of the two dominant parties, KMT and DPP, in Taiwan. It outlines a range of constructive strategies that the Taiwanese government has historically used in foreign relations, ranging from Chinese security threats to territorial disputes in South China Sea. Gutierrez’s essay papers over the fact that domestic conflicts are natural consequences to foreign trade relations. One must ask what does Gutierrez intend to do by marginalizing public expressions that contribute to constructive political discourse? Particularly when the discourse is about an event that is the process of unfolding–how the trend of unregulated economic transactions between Chinese and Taiwanese private interests contribute to a deteriorating democracy in Taiwan?

On 27 March, Standard Examiner published an article, which represents yet another China-biased perspective on the Sunflower Movement. Arthur I. Cyr, a professor of political economy, develops his opinion about Cross-Strait relations by applying PRC’s one-China lens. Cyr gathers together select ideas to support an overstatement of the implications of Taiwan-China cooperation: a) Nixon-era’s normalizing of relations between U.S. and China, b) linguistic and cultural commonalities that naturally support higher trade relations between two countries, and c) shared historical memories or artifacts between some segments of Taiwanese society and mainland Chinese. However, what is argued as “profound cooperation” between two countries should not imply consensus towards unification. Within Taiwanese politics, unification is not a black and white matter and opinions on unification shift with circumstances and time. Shelley Rigger’s 2001 survey of Taiwanese voters demonstrates the complexity in Taiwanese opinions on sovereignty and independence:

[When asked] to agree or disagree with the statement “If Taiwan could maintain peaceful relations with the Chinese communists after declaring independence, then Taiwan should become independent and establish a new country,” 42 per cent disagreed. In the same poll, 57 per cent agreed that, “If Taiwan and the mainland were comparable in their economic, social and political conditions, then the two sides should be unified” (p. 953).

Results from a new survey, published in 2013 summer issue of the journal of Strategic Studies Quarterly, tells us that voters’ opinions about Taiwan independence are growing stronger. Yuan-Kang Wang of Western Michigan University reports the following:

The 2011 survey supports this view; 65.7 percent of respondents opposed independence if it would cause a war with China. Without China’s threat of war, however, independence enjoys widespread support among Taiwan’s public. The same survey showed that 80.2 percent would support declaring independence if it would not trigger a cross-strait military conflict. Further analysis reveals that the deterrent effect of China’s military threat is dependent on the respondents’ party identification. The threat of war deters Blue but not Green supporters from favoring independence. A majority of Green partisans (64.7 percent) would still favor a formal declaration of independence, even if it meant war with China, while 86.3 percent of Blue partisans oppose declaring independence if it would cause war… (p. 99-100).

The confusion about Taiwan’s independence has important consequences when one considers how mass media is a key channel to facilitate dialog and understanding between polities. Media obfuscation privileges Beijing’s view of Taiwan over the Taiwanese people’s view of their own government, renders the details of students “doing democracy” as unimportant, and persists in under-reporting the content of the CSSTA. While some media sources have reduced the Sunflower Movement to visual memes, the media’s general equivocation about Taiwan’s independence signals to U.S. audience that the contents of a young but functioning democracy is not worthy of being discussed. In effect, U.S. media silences Taiwanese people’s claims for restoring or improving democratic processes, which calls for government transparency and public review/monitoring of the CSSTA.

Critiquing Taiwan’s ability to navigate the global political stage

On 24 March, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, published the following statement:

China considers Taiwan part of its territory that will one day be reunited with the mainland, with or without force. Expanding trade and tourism is necessary for the two societies to co-exist peaceably. But by seeking to block approval of this latest agreement, Taipei’s demonstrators jeopardize something far more critical, the future.

U.S. media’s curious, and stubborn, use of China-centered perspective to remark on mass social movement in Taiwan can be unpacked further to reveal deeper prejudices. One bias is related to mainstream media’s condescension towards Taiwan’s ability to navigate the regional and global political stage. Chris Fuchs’ essay 30 April essay published on Tea Leaf Nation and Foreign Policy affirms that U.S. media generally “[pays] Taiwan little mind.” Again, this lack of attention stands in contrast to the conclusions written in the 2013 Annual Report to the U.S. Congress as well as the concerns of security experts who monitor Cross-Strait relations. Those who are paying attention have remarked positively about Taiwanese political actors’ accomplishments in regional and global diplomacy. Matt Salmon, a Republican congressional representative, writes that “[President Ma Ying-jeou and Taiwanese diplomatic officials]…worked hard to defuse other regional tensions…[they have] provided the region with a concrete diplomatic blueprint on how to avoid [direct/violent] confrontation…” It is important to underscore the fact that Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency and his party DPP’s success are products of the Taiwanese people’s antipodal movement away from KMT politics to a competitive democracy. The ability for the DPP to attract talent and solutions to implement peaceful solutions has a direct relationship with a history of the internal splitting of KMT and an opposition party’s rise to legitimacy.ix For decades, the steady move away from KMT politics has included divorcing from KMT’s unreasonable claim that Taiwan, as R.O.C., represents the true/legitimate China. Furthermore, months before the students took more overt actions against KMT officials and President Ma, Taiwanese legislators have been fighting to include multilateral review of the CSSTA.

In general, reports and opinion essays published by U.S. news outlets writes dismissively or condescendingly about the Sunflower Movement. However, a few publications, as exampled by Fuchs’ 30 April essay, presents a slant that places an inordinate amount of responsibility on the student protestors to achieve what is considered a political “win.” Is the Sunflower Movement only relevant/coherent to the U.S. audience if the student protestors a) form a comprehensive and insurmountable argument against KMT’s and President Ma’s assent to the CSSTA, b) successfully alter the course taken with the CSSTA, and/or c) can hold the attention of foreign/U.S. media to their cause even after the disassembly of the occupation? Fuchs’ essay titled, “Is Taiwan Sinking Back into Media Obscurity?” calls the Sunflower Movement “attention starved” and states the following:

Domestic and foreign media coverage began to trail off, however, when students ended the occupation on April 10, following Legislature Speaker Wang Jin-pyng’s promise not to hold further discussions over the cross-strait trade pact until a law is passed to give the legislature greater oversight over trade agreements with China. Despite splinter protests in the weeks that followed, coverage of Taiwan in newspapers like the Times had returned to levels seen before students occupied the parliament building.

It is after 10 April that articles and essays, if only a few and published infrequently, emerge in U.S. media resembling professional and substantive reporting. Post-10 April writings are more likely to situate the protests within the perspective of the Taiwanese polity, weigh both the positive and negative outcomes of the CSSTA for the domestic economy in Taiwan, and report that the Taiwanese government is implementing a larger strategy for foreign trade relations other than simply signing a single agreement with China. Given that Taiwan is one of the least restricted places for foreign journalists, it is baffling that between 19 March and 10 April U.S. news reports lacked substance and opinion essays were developed from poorly informed perspectives. On this score, U.S. media coverage of the Sunflower Movement has proven to be a circus of confused narratives, psychological projections, and pretty pictures.

A map to better reporting on the Sunflower Movement

By articulating the failures in U.S. media coverage of the Sunflower Movement, this essay reveals knowledge traps that challenge the U.S. audience ability to understand the issues and concerns of another democratic society. It is important to follow such a critique with an alternative, a map of better English-language reporting on the Sunflower Movement. Mark Harrison of University of Tasmania authored one of the most concise and more neutral chronological reports of the Sunflower Movement. Democracy at 4 am also provides a detailed chronological report, but comments on each event with the bias of the student protestors. On 4 June, in part to memorialize the 1989 student protest in Tiananmen Square, the New York Times interviewed exiled Chinese student leader, Wu’er Kaixi. It is because Wu’er Kaixi has taken residence in Taiwan that his discusses the connection between his past activism and the recent Sunflower Movement. This interview introduces to U.S. audience for the first time, from a Mainland Chinese perspective, albeit sympathetic, about a Taiwanese protest:

Some of the leaders of the occupation of Taiwan’s Legislature this year, which became known as the Sunflower Movement, were Mr. Wang’s [another exile from the Tiananmen event] students. But in contrast to the demonstrators he led in Beijing 25 years ago, Mr. Wang said, the Taiwanese students had sophisticated political objectives and needed no advice from him… ‘We were asking for democracy,” he said. “They are exercising it. They are defending it.’

In general, Taipei Times has provided quality English-language content and coverage of the Sunflower Movement as well as the political events that have transpired from the protest. In 13 May, Taipei Times reports that KMT party members made an additional move against the democratic process, proposing legislation “to tighten rules for recalling legislators.” This is obviously a reactionary response to the public uprising, one that has focused the blame on KMT officials for violating democratic process and government transparency. Want China Times is another Taiwan-based, English-language news company that has covered the Sunflower Movement with more professional content as well as reporting PRC officials’ reactions to the student protest. Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post also provides well-written and interesting English-language content about the Sunflower Movement. A 17 April report reveals how PRC officials are concerned about the potential of the Sunflower Movement to spark in the millennial youth in China aspirations for democracy.

Although published much later, on 3 June, Dr. Roselyn Hsueh’s article, “Taiwan’s Treaty Trouble: The Backlash Against Taipei’s China Deal,” in Foreign Affairs discusses both the political and economic implications of the CSSTA in finer detail and with accessible language. Hsueh states plainly, “…diplomatic overtures [see U.S. media remarks of Taiwan's rapprochement program with PRC] aside, many Taiwanese believe that the unequal terms of the cross-strait agreement make plain what Beijing is really up to: regional domination.” Although Hsueh’s statement might seem polemical, it reflects appropriately the reported perspectives of ASEAN members, particularly with regards to the recent PRC move to erect oilrigs and build artificial land over disputed territory in the South China Sea. John J. Tkacik’s 1 April essay on The Washington Times also provides a detailed translation of the contents of the CTSSA. Although Tkacik’s general conclusions about Taiwan politics as “quirky” can be considered offensive to Taiwanese readers, his is the only article that introduces comparative politics, which widens the scope of discussion about Taiwan’s relationship with China.

The Taiwanese activists also learned useful lessons from Ukraine. Taiwan is America’s 11th-largest trading partner and sixth-largest market for U.S. farm goods. Taiwan’s economy is on the verge of being absorbed by China’s and is now struggling to avoid that fate. There are similarities with Ukraine, where protesters are struggling to avoid being absorbed by Russia and to strengthen ties with the democracies of the European Union.

Similar to Ukraine, the Taiwanese government works diligently to strengthen ties with other economies. Tacik’s article comments on how Taiwan’s creative diplomacy is a constant balancing act:

…there is a potential that [CTSSA] will be used by China as a backdoor into the U.S. market unless rules of origin are very tight. The integration of the Taiwanese and Chinese economies may make it more complicated for Taiwan to achieve workable new free-trade agreements with its Pacific partners, not less.

The “new trade agreements” mentioned in Tkacik’s essay could refer to the recent appeal for Taiwan to join the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).x According to a non-profit web publication, the National Interest, membership to the TPP would require Taiwan to engage in a series of legal reforms. Taiwanese government’s assertive diplomacy points to the fact that to act as if China is the main trading partner can be economically and politically detrimental to Taiwan’s future. However, signing onto two very different trade agreements beg questions such as how TPP membership and CTSSA could present dilemmas in legal reforms as well as how it would change the job market outcomes for the increasingly un/under-employed young Taiwanese. Unfortunately, the student-protest against the CSSTA and Taiwan’s application to the TPP are portrayed in U.S. media as mutually exclusive topics. This disconnection in media, in part, allows U.S. journalists and essayists to write China as the only hope for the future of Taiwan’s economy.

Recently, U.S. mainstream media has been attacked openly by critics as either increasingly “sensationalist and lazy” or biased to the point of performing propaganda rather than journalism. To put the nail in the coffin, Taipei-based foreign correspondent, Michael Cole, wrote, “Very few incidents in the past six years have highlighted the level of incomprehension about developments in Taiwan more than foreign reactions to the nearly three-week occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei.” This essay provides specific evidence to support the “sensationalist and lazy” critique: between 19 March to 10 April, major U.S. print and online news underreported the details of the CSSTA and relied on visual images of Taiwan’s mass protest to convey news about the Sunflower Movement. However, this essay also provides an alternative, a road map to better English-language reporting on the Sunflower Movement. To that end, the list of non-mainstream online sources can serve to counter future incidents of U.S. media mis- or under-informing as a result of poor news coverage and biased content.

Americans should care about the Sunflower Movement: Political Literacy

So, why should the U.S. audience care about another democratic society’s concerns? There are two main reasons. One relates to the fact that the average U.S. audience can benefit greatly from catching up with world events, but to do so in a way that includes local perspectives as well as learns from the challenges that emerging democracies face. Geopolitics is changing at a disturbingly rapid pace as China’s rise to power, the series of mass civil unrests in the Arabic-speaking and Middle Eastern countries, and conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Crimea all point to a new era of independence movements and border disputes. If the U.S. audience continues to use the incompetent lens of mainstream media or a perspective that smacks of American hegemony, it will find itself drowning in a sea of change. The second reason relates to one of multiple facets that explain the decline of American Democracy–a lack of sustained, rigorous, and comparative discussions about values, processes, and institutions that make up a working democracy.

Michael Cole’s essay published on 24 March and Roselyn Hsueh’s 3 June article, if read together, constitute a forewarning: China’s irredentism toward Taiwan has been on the rise, and it is part of PRC government’s larger plan to politically dominate northeast and southeast Asia. While U.S. media’s success in disconnecting Taiwan’s sovereignty from the CSSTA serves to support the capitalist paradigm, it does so to the detriment of under-informing the U.S. audience about PRC government’s aspirations in Asia. Moreover, blotting out discourse that should exists between governance and economic trade does not contribute to vibrant, diverse free markets. Rather the lack of transparency and coherence with regards to environmental, human resource, and political problems that arise from agreements that promote unregulated and unmonitored private transactions between large companies of two countries helps to support the growth of monopolies.xi Both Cole’s essay and the 2013 Annual Report to the U.S. Congress point out the fact that Washington DC needs to quickly reconsider its complacent belief that Taiwan’s “creative diplomacy,” alone, will not be sufficient to maintain peaceful relations at the intersection of the Northeast and Southeast Asian region. The Senkaku Island dispute, the continuous aggressive claims made over parts of the South China Sea, and China’s closed-door military developments are indications that all is indeed not well, not in Taiwan nor in many parts of Asia.

The Fall 2004 issue of the Hedgehog Reviewxii describes discourse–the fact that we talk, how often we talk, and how we talk–as an important component of the democratic process:

The means by which the dialectic of public discourse takes place…shapes the nature and formation of political reality. Thus, democracies are deeply affected by the kinds of public discourse that occur within them…all democracies are not the same. There is an important difference between “forms of government” and “forms of power.” Democracy, like monarchy, is a form of government. But democracy can be despotic in the way that it exercises power, particularly when democratic processes become shallow, rather than substantive; thin, rather than thick. Thus, when shallow, democracy tends to repress, minimize, or even ignore conflict altogether. Substantive democracy, by contrast, is not only consonant with the idea of conflict, it depends upon conflict and the frank recognition of difference that it implies

Mainstream media’s under-reporting and misinformation about other democracies affect how Americans talk about democracy. U.S. media’s decision against dutifully reporting another democratic society’s struggle inhibits the public’s ability to think and discuss comparatively about democracy. As an immigrant who is a staunch supporter of people-based democracy, I hope that this essay serves as a bridge–to connect the concerns of citizens of a less than 20 years old democracy with the latent-to-emerging concerns of citizens from a democracy that is well over 200 years old. When we can discuss freely and comparatively about democracy, we can begin build accurate and diverse knowledge about how groups within democracies compete for power. It is from that kind of a knowledge base that we can understand how the people can take back the government, peacefully, creatively, and constructively.


The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “2013 Annual Report to the Congress.” 20 November 2013. Washington, DC.

Leng, Shao-chuan (ed). Chiang Ching-kuo’s Leadership in the Development of the Republic of China on Taiwan. 1993, English edition. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Dickson, Bruce J. “The Kuomingtang before democratization: Organizational changes and the role of elections,” Ch. 3. In Taiwan’s Electoral Politics and Democratic Transition: Riding the Third Wave, edited by Hung-mao Tien. 1996. NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Tan, Alexander C. “The Transformation of the Kuomintang Party in Taiwan.” Democratization, 9:3, pp. 149-164. 2002. doi:10.1080/714000268

Rigger, Shelley. “The Democratic Progressive Party in 2000: Obstacles and Opportunities.” The China Quarterly, 168, pp. 944-959. 2001. doi:10.1017/S0009443901000559

Feaver, John H. “The China Aid Bill of 1948: Limited Assistance as a Cold War Strategy.” Diplomatic History, 1981, 5(2), pp. 107-120. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7709.1981.tb00774.x

Roth, Andy Lee. (10 May 2014). ” Why Politics at the Dinner Table Is Good for Democracy

Our political process, Robert Jensen reminds us, begins with conversation,” YES Magazine.

Categorizing articles based on perspectives

Tung, William L. “The Political Institutions of Modern China 1964.” In China at War: Political Institutions During the Period of the Sino-Japanese War, pp 169-197.

Wu, Julie. “Remembering Taiwan’s White Terror.” The Diplomat, 8 March 2014.

i This article, in Simplified Chinese, discusses from a nostalgic perspective the relationship between the 1989 Tianamen Protest and the 2014 Sunflower Movement. The line that best summarizes the essay is “一個無法回到大陸的學運領袖,成為一群茫然的台灣青年的精神導師,” which translates to “a student activist of Tiananmen protest who cannot return home becomes the spiritual advisor for the flock of Taiwanese student protestors.”


Between 19 March to 10 April less than 30 articles on the Sunflower Movement or the CSSTA have been published in print U.S. regional and national newspapers.


 mostly web-based, non-mainstream publications after 10 April)


 To understand what life was like during the period of martial law, please review this article published by the Tea Leaf Nation.

v Democracy at 4am is a blog site that supports and receives writing contributions from the Black Island Youth Frontier (黑色島國青年陣). The Black Island Youth Frontier is the official name of the student organizers of the occupation of Taiwan’s legislative building and the Sunflower Movement


 A spike in number and frequency of U.S. reporting occurred after the CNN wire breaking report of protestors clashing with police officers in attempt to occupy the executive building. The students opted to storm the executive building after a series of very public requests to President Ma participate in a formal discussion/negotiation failed to achieve a constructive response. In July 2013, President Ma has been quoted concerning political discussion with PRC government on the issue of unification: “such a meeting would be conditional on whether [Taiwan] needs it, whether the [Taiwan] people support it, [and] that we can meet with dignity.” President Ma’s explicit deference to the Taiwan people is typical of a DPP stance on Taiwan-China unification. However, Ma does not consider the student protestors a legitimate voice to represent the Taiwan people, even if demonstrations and sentiments are expressed by hundreds of thousands of protestors.

vii Managerial paradigm is a term borrowed from Alain Badiou’s book, Being and Event. Badiou uses management paradigm to describe the function of contemporary political and cultural systems. He argues that by allowing for the multitude, infinite, possibilities in doing politics to occur can society arrive at new ways of being and acting. Furthermore, universal or democratic truths are the products of a genuine commitment to a political event.


 A more specific bias observed from my review of news articles and opinion essays on the Sunflower Movement is that writers often privilege China’s cheap labor market and untapped consumer market as the solution to correct Taiwan’s economic slump.


 See articles written by Alexander C. Tan and Shelley Rigger (references)

x Nikkei Asian Review is a weekly business publication. It writes as early as February, in an article titled, “US courting Taiwan for TPP as counterweight to China,” which discusses the quiet alliance that brings Taiwan into the TPP (

xi In the Asian case, corporate monopoly is no longer about the private; the PRC government has a history of establishing corporate vehicles for state expansion.


Angel Ryono is a Visiting Scholar Program Administrator at Institute for East Asian Studies – Center for Chinese Studies.

Hedgehog is a publication of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture