In Search of Sunflower Seeds in Hong Kong

Ian Rowen

Ian Rowen The specter of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement continues to loom large for Hong Kong’s unfinished “Umbrella Revolution.” Soon pushing into its third month, Hong Kong’s movement has out-scaled and outlasted Taiwan’s Sunflowers, and has attracted exponentially greater international attention. It has, however, been caught in something of a holding pattern, punctuated earlier this month by a botched attempt by a splinter group to storm the Legislative Council (LegCo), and by this week’s police efforts to clear a major site.

It is therefore still too early for a postmortem: More than 2,000 tents remain in the main Admiralty occupation; the tiny Causeway Bay settlement is stable, and in what will likely be a complicated and messy operation, police are only now beginning to clear the comparatively unruly Mong Kok occupation. However, while the Umbrellas have not yet folded, they, unlike the Sunflowers, appear increasingly unlikely to achieve any short-term political concessions.

It would be unfair to pin this entirely on the activists themselves. The student-led movement has performed far above expectations, and augurs a major cultural shift that Beijing will find difficult to contain. But they are up against a more intransigent opponent in the form of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Hong Kong administration than the Sunflowers were in the divided Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平).

Hong Kong students and the government have been caught in something of a stalemate since Oct. 21, the last time they engaged in public dialogue. Activists have been unwilling to leave without achieving concessions, and the government has been unable to clear them without risking violence or a public backlash. The situation resembled that of the Sunflower occupation after student activist Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) faced Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) outside the Legislative Yuan in a public showdown on March 22, neither willing nor able to concede.

That day inside and around the occupied Legislative Yuan felt tense and desperate: Many protesters complained that the core Sunflower leadership was reactive and uninterested in outside ideas, that the government wouldn’t respond and that time was running out. They groped for the right escalation tactic, and their answer was the March 23 storming of the Executive Yuan, a controversial and dangerous move. However, its bloody suppression by riot police shocked Taiwan’s public and, I have argued, ultimately galvanized broader support by gaining the movement much wider attention.

A similar Umbrella purgatory, however, lasted for 28 days instead of one. In that time, the ethos of non-violence and the presence of the volunteer self-organized steward and the marshal (糾察) team in Admiralty became increasingly entrenched, leading to dissatisfaction among the more aggressive activists.

This frustration came to a head on the night of Nov. 18, when a small outside contingent of “radicals” entered Admiralty, demanded the stewards to stand down, and attempted to recruit occupation resident “villagers” to storm LegCo. Most villagers, myself included, were unimpressed, but the security team was unable to stop them. Area supply stations anticipated police pepper spray and handed out facemasks and goggles to anyone heading towards the fray. Police, despite having hours of warning and already being present around the site, were suspiciously slow to respond, later raising questions that agents provocateurs had initiated the action to discredit the movement. After pushing aside the pan-democratic lawmaker Fernando Cheung, who argued that the action was misdirected and would alienate the public, the few “radicals” finally used metal barricades and bricks to break several panes of glass before scattering. Police eventually filed in between the windows and the villagers after the brick-wielders had fled, engaged in scuffles with a tense crowd, and later arrested several people allegedly involved in the incident.

Finger pointing has since ensued, and Taiwan’s example has figured in the debate. A member of Civic Passion, the social media-savvy activist group that publishes the Passion Times and has seen one of their activists arrested over the incident, responded by criticizing activists who only get behind already-successful campaigns like Taiwan’s Sunflowers. English-language comics circulated poking fun at Hong Kong legislators who supported Taiwan’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan while not tolerating a similar attempt in Hong Kong. Yet, what they choose to overlook is that the Sunflower’s target was precisely the Legislative Yuan, where the Cross-strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) was nearly passed without the review promised by the KMT.

Likewise, as dangerous as the Executive Yuan campaign was, it had political relevance — Premier Jiang, who heads the Executive, was the last person to speak with the protesters. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, however, has zero ability to deliver “genuine universal suffrage,” the core Umbrella demand. Worse, breaking a few windows made little tactical sense for a movement that is already losing steam after too many weeks of impasse and still under the gaze of a public that has little tolerance for destruction of public property. The government successfully spun it as “severe damage” and even generally sympathetic Western media described the acts as “violent.”

Not just protesters, but prominent government figures in both Taiwan and Hong Kong have also used the Sunflowers as a reference point. In Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou simultaneously praised Hong Kong Umbrella and criticized Taiwan Sunflower as “violent.” This was a strange bit of sophistry likely designed to score the KMT some political points in advance of the Nov. 29 nine-in-one elections. It merely raised eyebrows in Taiwan and irritated commentators in China. In Hong Kong, pro-government legislator Regina Ip, who notoriously championed the failed passage of the “anti-subversion” Article 23 more than ten years ago, recently reflected on the “inspirational relationship” between the Sunflowers and the Umbrellas in her ominous discussion of how best to “counter pernicious external influences.” Such “pernicious influences” include not only the Taiwanese activists and academics who visited the occupation sites in Hong Kong, but also the very (American and Taiwanese) idea of public nomination, which will be “much harder to eradicate.” Ip’s article reflects Beijing’s general drive to paint the protests as the product of “foreign forces” and thereby disclaim responsibility for listening to the demands of its own well-educated youth. Interestingly, the Sunflowers have been criticized by pro-government intellectuals on precisely the opposite grounds, as “protectionist and “anti-globalization.” This same line filtered into a recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald, one of the few Western reports to analyze the effects of the Sunflowers on Taiwan’s upcoming elections (Unsurprisingly, that journalist’s trip was paid for by Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

When the dust finally settles on Occupy Hong Kong and scholars look back on its astonishing rise and slow fall, the Sunflower Movement is likely to gain prominence as its most direct precedent. Such a conversation is already happening online at  The Diplomat, where Nithin Coca wonders if 2014 is the start of a new “Asian Spring.” Having pondered this possibility back in March while inside the occupied Legislative Yuan, I find it provocative if not disturbing, given the political calamities that befell the Middle East following the Arab Spring. It’s still too early to know, but if it turns out that way, like bubble tea and “Chinese democracy,” we may just be able to say that it began in Taiwan.

Ian Rowen is a Fulbright Fellow, Visiting associate at Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology, and PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His article, “Inside Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement: Twenty-four days in a student occupied legislature, and the future of the region,” is forthcoming in the Journal of Asian Studies.