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How Taiwan's Sunflower Movement let young people speak up

Yuchen Li in Taipei
March 15, 2024

The Sunflower Movement took Taiwan by storm a decade ago after the Taipei government tried to push through an opaque deal with Beijing. Millennials and Gen Zers are still feeling the effects.

Young protesters hold up small sunflowers during the 2014 protests
The Sunflower Movement in 2014 influenced Taipei's ties to BeijingImage: Arte

Taiwan's so-called Sunflower Movement, named after a florists' gift to protesters, erupted in March 2014 when dozens of students stormed the parliament and occupied the chamber for three-and-a-half weeks.

The government had previously enraged the Taiwanese public with a decision to pass a cross-strait trade pact with Beijing without a clause-by-clause review. Protesters argued the deal would harm Taiwan's economy and provide China with more leverage over the island, which Beijing sees as a part of its territory.

Hundreds of thousands of people eventually took to the streets of Taipei to show solidarity with the students. Sunflowers became a symbol of hope. Faced with the pushback, the government halted the trade deal.

Today, Taiwanese Millennials and Gen Zers are still feeling the lingering effects of the mass civil disobedience that set off a wave of youth activism and pushed the island away from Beijing.

Young people fight to have a say in politics

Lin Fei-fan, one of the student leaders who broke into the parliament in 2014, believes the movement was a watershed moment for Taiwanese people, allowing them to realize their power to influence government policies.

Lin Fei-fan gestures during DW interview
Lin Fei-fan took part in the 2014 protests and the storming of Taiwan's parliamentImage: DW

"I think originally that Taiwan's relations with China were usually decided by a small group of political elites," the 35-year-old told DW.

The 2014 protests showed that young Taiwanese wanted to have a say in cross-strait issues, he added.

Many members of the younger generation were worried over the apparent erosion of Taiwan's democracy under the rule of Kuomintang (KMT) — a political party favoring rapprochement with China. At the same time, they were criticized by older generations for being weak and apathetic about politics.

Millennials look to Gen Z as deal resurfaces

Two years after the student movement, Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ousted the KMT and remains in power to this day. However, its margin of victory over the KMT narrowed significantly in the election held this past January.

In fact, the DPP only managed to secure around 40% of the vote, indicating that the majority of Taiwanese voters now support opposition parties that advocate for closer ties with Beijing.

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One of them is the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), which boasts strong support from Generation Z — also known in Taiwan as "the Post Sunflower Generation."

Brian Hioe, a participant of the Sunflower movement and the founder of New Bloom Magazine, told DW there is "a lot of concern now from millennials directed towards Gen Z.

"The question is: Will Gen Z be as politically engaged?" he said.

During the recent election campaign, it was reported that the TPP's leader Ko Wen-je was floating the idea of reinstating the trade agreement with Beijing inside party circles.

And the public may not be fully opposed to the idea — in 2014, many argued they were not protesting the agreement itself but rather the secretive manner in which the government had attempted to push it through.

There are also those who still back the deal, believing the student movement undermined the benefits that China's market could have brought to certain industries.

Will younger generations embrace populism?

In addition to his cross-strait policy, Ko is seen by many as too conservative on same-sex marriage and gender equality.

Lai Yu-fen, 28, once served as a spokeswoman for the Sunflower Movement. She said it was "worrisome" to see "young people support a populist politician," but pointed out that Taiwan is not a unique case.

"You can see in Europe, in the US and South Korea and Japan, many young voters now tend to vote for the right wing, more conservative, more traditional politicians," she told DW. "And there's a split among young men and young women."

How can Taiwan defend itself from China?

Hioe told DW that for younger generations, the DPP has been in power for most of their adult lives and it's reasonable for them to want a change with more focus on domestic issues.

Young student inspired by 2014 protests

For Li Cheng-ai, a 19-year-old university student who belongs to Gen Z, the Sunflower Movement is still an inspiration which raised her awareness of the cross-strait issues. Lin also witnessed other events over the past 10 years that have led many of her generation to conclude that "we are different from China" — most notably the Hong Kong anti-extradition protests in 2019.

But Li personally attended the Sunflower protests in 2014, at the age of 9, when her parents took her to join the demonstration in Taipei.

"I found leaders like Lin Fei-fan in the student movement very admirable, and I wanted to be like them," she told DW.

"It showed young people the power we hold when we come together for a common cause."

DW correspondent James Chater contributed to this report.

Edited by: Darko Janjevic