Taiwan’s Sunflower Occupation

The students who have taken over Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan to fight a yet to-be ratified service trade agreement with China in what has come to be called the “sunflower occupation” have to be shaking up the councils in Beijing.

The students’ activism in Taiwan has touched off an island-wide reaction against closer ties with China, with a crowd estimated anywhere between 100,000 and half a million taking to the streets Sunday in front of the Presidential Office. It was the biggest protest since Taiwan became a democracy in 1996 and reflects not so much concerns about the trade pact but anger and frustration over the Kuomintang government and local conglomerates inviting Beijing’s continuing encroachment on Taiwan’s media, politics and business.

It also reflects the fact that China still has no idea how to reach out beyond Taiwan’s politicians and business elites to its general public, who remain distrustful of the mainland government despite lucrative trade deals and the carrot and stick approach of its notorious United Front, which combines threats of war with nurturing the presence of indigenous China sympathizers. It is much the same in Hong Kong, where a favorable trade deal and other perks have done little or nothing to engender trust either in local leaders or Beijing itself on the part of the wider electorate.

The events in Taipei began to take shape on March 18 when the students took action against the agreement over claims the agreement would drive up unemployment and invite Chinese infiltration at the expense of Taiwan’s hard-earned democratic system. It became the sunflower revolution when a florist delivered a box of sunflowers in support, and students picked up the idea. Although the students have drawn impressive support from the Taiwanese public, the Taiwan Affairs Office, which deals with Taiwanese matters from the mainland, has remained mum.

“The mainland’s policy on Taiwan enjoys high public approval here [in China] … I hope the Taiwanese society can have a deep understanding of that,” said Ma Xiaoguang, the spokesman for the office.

Reasons for Pessimism in Beijing

According to Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, the sunflower occupation is making the Chinese government uncomfortable, since it will push back the timetable it has set for closer ties between Taiwan and China, particularly politically.

“The occupation is showing Beijing that the [China-friendly] administration of Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou is unable to deliver its promises,” Tsang said. “The United Front will be sustained, but it is not disarming the people of Taiwan, as reflected by the large margin with which the Taiwanese public felt uncomfortable with the service trade agreement,” Tsang said.

Could the frustrated leaders in Beijing be considering taking their cues from the decisive action by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last week simply annexed the Crimea while western leaders only delivered angry rhetoric? Tsang contents that Putin’s moves and western reactions hardly deliver valuable lessons to Beijing, given that its calculation will have to be a lot more complex and cautious than that made by Putin.

“[Despite the United Front] there is no meaningfully significant indigenous force in Taiwan that would appeal for assistance from the Mainland for unification, and Taiwan’s defense forces would fight [unlike Ukraine’s]. Furthermore, the US is under the requirement of a US law – the Taiwan Relations Act – to take measures to help Taiwan defend itself if a change of Taiwan’s status should be imposed against the will of the people of Taiwan,” he says.

Tsang adds that in the Crimean context it is important not lose sight of the perspective of time. Putin, he says, appears to have made a great success in his Crimean adventure but whether this will pay off in the medium to longer term remains to be seen. Over the longer term, “the lesson from the Russian adventure in Crimea may appear differently,” he says.

Or Chinese optimism?

John Copper, a Taiwan expert and professor of International Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, says the sunflower movement shouldn’t overly alarm Beijing, as time is decisively on its side. He argues that the developments will actually weaken Taiwan’s main opposition party, the anti-unification Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which failed to return to power in the last elections in 2012 because of public perceptions that the party has no answers whatsoever as to how it could sit down with China for the good of the Taiwanese economy.

“Beijing views the student protest as orchestrated by the DPP, which in turn will make it less likely the DPP will be able to formulate a China policy that Beijing will accept,” Copper said. Chinese leaders may believe that the DPP leadership realized it was not able to accomplish any reconciliation with Beijing and thus have given up, instead resorting to local anti-China nationalism.

As to whether Beijing will adjust its Taiwan policy, Copper says China still feels the best way to manage relations with Taiwan is the current way of expanding economic relations.

“Last year China accounted for nearly a third of the growth of global GDP, and now Asian trade is half with Asia, while Taiwan's trade with Japan, Europe and the US isn't growing much,” he says. “The students express fear that Taiwan is becoming dependent on China economically, but most nations in Asia are becoming dependent on China, meaning what the students are saying and doing probably won't gain strength.”

Copper identifies some inconspicuous silver linings for China also in terms of developments on the Crimea. According to him, Beijing sees the situation there as a distraction that diverts America's focus away from Asia and weakens the Asian pivot to the benefit of China’s Taiwan agenda.

“Furthermore, any Western economic pressure on Russia may also result in Moscow selling more oil, gas and other natural resources as well as top-of-the-line weapons to China, which Beijing would like,” Copper adds.

He points at recent reports that Russia is developing a new advanced submarine class, the Kalina-class, which Putin may sell to China. Military experts say such top-notch submarines – which China will find hard to design itself for some time to come – are the ideal weapons to make the US Navy cautious about intervening in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.