A Decade Later: What is the Lasting Impact of the Sunflower and Umbrella Movements on Political Activism?


Image Credit: DSC9845 by Shih-Shiuan Kao/ Flickr, license: CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED.

Written by: Dr Chun-Yi Lee

This question was at the forefront of my mind when I proposed to Dr Malte Kaeding and Dr Heidi Wang-Kaeding that the Taiwan Research Hub join forces with the Hong Kong Research Hub. Our goal was to organise two joint workshops in Nottingham and Surrey. We aimed not only to reflect on the events from ten years ago but also to envision what the next decade and beyond might hold for us. Our joint workshops took place on the 18th and 19th of March, coinciding with the anniversary of the first day of the Sunflower movement’s protests ten years earlier. This post not only reflects my own thoughts about these two significant social movements in Taiwan and Hong Kong but also encapsulates my learnings from these two workshops.

As a graduate student in journalism in Taiwan, my own take on these two movements is not necessarily about the content of the movements but the freedom of speech behind the movements. In the case of Taiwan, before the Sunflower movement, there was an anti-media monopoly movement that took place in 2011 and 2012. Tsai Eng-men, a Taiwanese businessperson who had been investing in China’s food industry since 1990, amassed a considerable fortune. Upon returning to Taiwan, he purchased a newspaper (China Times), a TV channel, and a major cable operator. As Prof Liyhun Lin and I discussed in our paper When Business Met Politics, acquiring media assets represents a costly and risky endeavour. Tsai spent about NT $20.4 billion (around US $680 million) to buy the China Times media group and almost NT $80 billion (around US $2.4 billion) to buy the main cable TV channel CtiTV. Tsai Eng-men’s investments in media were not intended to generate monetary returns but to influence public opinion in Taiwan. However, contrary to his expectations, these efforts had an unintended consequence. The overtly pro-China stance adopted by his newspaper and TV channels sparked significant resistance from Taiwan’s civil society. The anti-media monopoly movement was seen as the seeded movement for the Sunflower movement; quite a few leaders of the Sunflower movement, for instance, Chen Wei-Ting, Lin Fei-Fan and Huang Kuo-Chang all appeared in the anti-media monopoly movement. In the anti-media movement, Taiwan’s civil society was defending the freedom of speech, not to be manipulated by the Chinese purchasing power (through a Taiwanese businessperson who invested in China). In the Sunflower Movement, although the specific issues differed from those in the anti-media movement, the overarching goal remained the same: to resist the influence of Chinese purchasing power being used to undermine Taiwan’s legislative transparency through backdoor negotiations.

In the case of Hong Kong, again, my focus was not exactly on the Umbrella Movement itself but on Apple Daily. When I was a student of journalism in Taiwan, I had an impression that Apple’s Daily was a tabloid newspaper. Its news reports mainly were on sensational social news, murders, raps, and all kinds of news, which triggered readers’ raising eye bows. Our teacher used Apple Daily as an example to indicate how ‘colourful’ a newspaper could be. In the training of ethics of journalism, Apple Daily was an example of what we should not follow.

Nevertheless, Apple Daily has transformed dramatically in the past twenty years. It turned out to be the most vocal newspaper in Hong Kong, criticising China. The arrest of Jimmy Lai (the newspaper founder) in 2020 was a serious signal. It came along with the Chinese government’s charge of Apple Daily of ‘breaching National Security Law’. The last print of Apple Daily was June 24 2021. That was a historical date to mark, which symbolised the freedom of speech, along with the democracy of Hong Kong fell into the iron fist of the Chinese government. From this juncture, what can one expect of the future of Hong Kong?

The future is not entirely bleak. In fact, during our workshop discussion, it became clear that the responsibility of maintaining a democratic Hong Kong may rest with the Hong Kong diaspora. It involves not just preserving memories of what Hong Kong once was but also educating the next generation about the principles of democracy. Since 2019, Cantonese communities have been relocating not just to the UK but also to Canada, Taiwan, the US, and other parts of the world. Our workshop discussion highlighted that these global Cantonese communities could embrace the mission of building a free Hong Kong from abroad outside of the physical borders of Hong Kong itself.

Ten years after the Sunflower Movement, Taiwan presents a distinct case. The quick answer to the kind of society Taiwan has become is that a clearer and more confident Taiwanese identity has emerged over this decade. It is easier for one to take the result of the Presidential election as an indicator that the Taiwanese people chose not to appoint the pro-China KMT to lead Taiwan. However, apart from the Presidential election, there are also other changes in Taiwan which allow us to see the lineage of the Sunflower movement. The questionable CtiTV eventually was revoked the broadcasting license in November 2020. I argued in my second paper, Does Press Freedom Come with Responsibility? Media for and against Populism in Taiwan, along with Prof Lin, that the National Communication Council (NCC)’s decision to revoke the CtiTV’s broadcasting license was not because this TV channel supported the mainland China-friendly and populist figure Han Kuo Yu but because the high percentage of false news reports.

Nevertheless, such a decision at the time triggered Han’s supporters’ complaints about the Taiwanese government’s intervention in the media’s freedom of speech. Those critics’ point was that Taiwan is a democratic society; therefore the government should allow different opinions in the broadcasting, even if that voice was to support the threat of democratic Taiwan. My two penn’orth on this matter is that the name and value of democracy, along with the freedom it embodies, cannot be hijacked by false news reports, which was precisely why CtiTV’s broadcasting license was not renewed. This incident highlights that Taiwan is still actively working to strengthen its democratic processes, emphasising how precious it is that Taiwan continues in this effort.

To revisit my initial inquiry: Ten years on, do the Sunflower and Umbrella movements still hold significance? Absolutely, they do. Although younger generations may not have directly experienced these movements, their importance persists because the struggle continues. The threat of authoritarianism remains, subtly infiltrating democratic societies in various forms. These movements are crucial because they symbolise our ongoing resistance against such authoritarian powers, not just in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but for their broader democratic ideals.

Dr Chun-yi Lee is an Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham School of Politics and International Relations. She is the Director of the Taiwan Research Hub at the University of Nottingham and the Editor-in-Chief of Taiwan Insight.