Between March 18 and April 10 2014 a group of student activists led thousands of protesters as they occupied the Legislative Yuan and surrounding Ketegalan Boulevard in Taipei, Taiwan. The event, now known as the 318 Occupation or Sunflower Student Movement, has since been defined as a turning point in Taiwan’s democracy, and dominates academic discussion. It has been celebrated as an expression of civil society’s disillusion with the Kuomintang (KMT) government, growing ties with China, and economic inequality. The occupation has also been attributed with changing the balance of power in Taiwan, leading to the election of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government in 2016, and the rise of minor parties.
This thesis seeks to understand the 318 Occupation and its significance in Taiwan, by tracking the major student-led movements that preceded it. Beginning with the Wild Strawberry Movement of 2008, this thesis asks how and why young activists became prominent in Taiwan’s civil society, and what this reveals about the broader socio-political structure.
In doing so, Rowena argues that the concept of ‘reflexivity’ best captures young activists’ deliberate and self-aware navigation of a contradictory and unstable environment. Encountering fierce debates over geopolitics, national identity, party politics and the legacy of authoritarianism, the students were able to establish political space only by compromising their ideals and political style. She suggests that this articulation of modernity was based around the pursuit of competing and unrealisable ideals. The achievements of young activists – including obstructing legislation that concerned them, introducing new measures in line with their beliefs, and ousting the KMT in 2016 – led to a ‘collapse in reflexivity’, and peak in disillusion.
Rowena Ebsworth is a PhD candidate at the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University. She received her Bachelor of Arts with First Class Honours from the University of Tasmania. Her current research interests include social movements, generational politics, urban development, power and Taiwanese identity.