The Black Iron Cage: Taiwanese Protesters in an Age of Global Unrest

By Albert WuJune 3, 2014

The Black Iron Cage: Taiwanese Protesters in an Age of Global Unrest

ON APRIL 10, after a three-week-long standoff, Taiwanese student prote­sters ended their occupation of the Legislative Yuan, the country’s parliament. Called the “Sunflower Student Movement,” the action has been the subject of intense debate and scrutiny in Taiwan, as it has raised vital questions about Taiwan’s democratic past and future. But the movement has implications that extend beyond Taiwan’s borders. It reflects a broader global moment of anxiety over the nature of democracy itself.

The occupation began on the night of March 18, when around 300 student protesters broke into the parliament. They barricaded the entrance into the building, successfully hindering police attempts at eviction. Later, the Legislative Speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, the only government official who could authorize a police action against the occupiers, ordered the police to stand down, allowing the protesters to stay.

Legislative shenanigans had served as the spark. The ruling party Kuomintang (KMT) had signed a free trade agreement with China, known as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, in June 2013. The party leaders sent the bill to the legislature for ratification, where it has a two-thirds majority. According to legislative procedure in Taiwan, all bills have to go through a subcommittee reading before being sent to a plenary session for a final vote. The subcommittee promised that it would perform an article-by-article review of the treaty before sending it to the floor. Knowing that it faced an overwhelming majority intent on ratifying the treaty, the opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), determined that its only viable strategy was to obstruct. For several days before the occupation, DPP legislators prevented the subcommittee from convening by blocking elevators and doors to the meeting room. In scenes typical of the Taiwanese legislature, pandemonium reigned; shoving matches ensued.


By March 18, the KMT co-chair of the subcommittee had grown tired of the antics. In an act of comic absurdity, he grabbed hold of a microphone, hid in the hallway, next to the bathroom, and declared the meeting convened and adjourned. In a fell swoop lasting less than a minute, he proclaimed that the deadline for reviewing executive orders had passed (the claim was pure fabrication: the bill is not an executive order); the articles of the treaty were thus automatically considered reviewed and sent to the plenary session. That night, exasperated by the “30-second meeting,” the protesters mobilized. 

Tensions over free trade agreements with China have been brewing for years. In 2010 China and Taiwan agreed to cut tariffs and reduce trade barriers on a wide range of products, primarily in the petrochemical, textile, machinery, agricultural, and transportation industries. At the time the first treaty was signed, similar clashes occurred in parliament: the DPP asked for a line-by-line review of the trade pact, and the KMT refused.

The free trade agreement currently pending approval extends liberalization into the service sectors, including banking, health care, tourism, film, telecommunications, transportation, construction, and printing. The KMT government argues that Taiwan needs Chinese investment to boost a stagnating economy that has become dominated by the service industry. Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou and his supporters claim that the trade agreement will boost exports and create 12,000 new jobs. It will also form, they argue, the basis for sustained future growth. In the past 10 years, Taiwanese wages have seen zero growth, and in some cases, have declined; in the same time span, South Korean wages have grown by 3.8 percent each year. President Ma credits South Korea’s continual growth to the bilateral free trade agreements that South Korea signed with international countries in the past 10 years. Taiwan, the president warned, has lagged far behind South Korea in the game. According to Ma, delaying the ratification of the current treaty will hinder Taiwan’s ability to sign more free trade agreements and bind itself more closely to the international community. In particular, the KMT government has its eyes set on joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a US-led initiative to create an East Asian Free Trade zone.

Critics of the current pact are concerned about how the agreement threatens Taiwan’s sovereignty. Two semi-official governmental organizations signed the treaty, since sending officials with plenipotentiary powers would mean that the PRC acknowledged the sovereign legitimacy of the Taiwanese government. Critics have thus argued that the two trade agreements cannot be considered “real,” since symmetrical sovereign claims form the starting point for most free trade agreements.


Looming over these debates, of course, are fears of China’s economic and political rise. The inversion of China and Taiwan’s economic and geopolitical position since the 1980s has been rapid and unprecedented. Many Taiwanese have also warily observed the PRC’s increasing interest in projecting its geopolitical power into the South and East China Seas. The Chinese have flexed their diplomatic muscles towards Japan over the Senkaku Islands, ruffled relations with the Philippines over several contested reefs and islands, and encroached on South Korean airspace. Because the PRC has long stated that reunification with Taiwan is its goal — the Chinese leader Xi Jinping has repeatedly stated that he is committed to “advance the cause of peaceful unification” — it is not mere paranoia to view the treaty as opening the gate for a Trojan horse.

The treaty’s proposal to liberalize the publishing sector illuminates the stakes on both sides of the debate. Proponents of the pact argue that it will benefit major book retailers in Taiwan, affording them access to an exponentially larger market. But critics point to the PRC’s long-standing practice of censorship. For many Taiwanese, fears of restrictions on free speech rub salt on a still-open historical wound. As recently as 1986, Taiwanese lived under a state of martial law. Throughout the “White Terror” of the 1960s and 1970s, the KMT jailed and tortured dissident writers and publishers who tried to disseminate pamphlets the government considered seditious. (Banned items ranged from somewhat innocuous martial arts novels to the writings of Marx.) 

Explicit government action enforcing bans on freedom of speech may now be effected by something more insidious: China’s economic consolidation. In 2012, a media conglomerate that receives subsidies from the Chinese government, Want Want, tried to acquire the Taiwanese print division of Next Media, which has been critical of the Chinese government. The acquisition proposal incited widespread protest. Many of the student leaders in the Sunflower Movement had been intimately involved in the mobilization the protests against Want Want’s media consolidation. The protests succeeded; the acquisition attempt failed. 

Taiwanese fears over a Chinese-dominated media landscape illustrate an understanding that economic controls over speech can be as insidious, though more invisible, as political controls. The Taiwanese government claims that publishing itself is not open to liberalization, and thus freedom of speech will not be affected. But as some critics note, the free trade agreement in services gives overwhelming advantages to Chinese book publishers, who are state-owned, have larger pools of capital, access to cheap printing costs, and the prerogative to operate without a profit. Taiwanese book publishers, who are for the most part small- and medium-sized enterprises, will be unable to compete with the Chinese media corporations. In such a situation, the Chinese government would not even have to enforce political bans on freedom of speech. Books critical of the Chinese government would simply disappear from the Taiwanese market, since the Chinese publishers would not print and retail controversial books according to Chinese standards of censorship. Taiwanese books would simply be squeezed out of the market. Market forces would do the work of censorship for the Chinese government.


Student movements in the Sinophone world have had a long tradition. From the May 4 Movement of 1919 to the June 4, 1989, movement in Tiananmen, students have been actors of modern historical change. They are uniquely positioned to push the limits of the system, partly because of the traditionally elevated status of the educated elite within Chinese-speaking societies. Also, a powerful trope endures within popular consciousness: the image of the scholar-activist, who heroically attempts to warn the country of its internal corruption. In Taiwan, a student protest in March 1990 dubbed “The Wild Lily Student Movement” played a singular part in catalyzing Taiwan’s transition to a constitutional representative democracy. Lee Teng-hui, the president at the time, invited students to the Presidential building and promised to implement some of the student’s demands.

Yet students have also been painted as singularly irrational, overemotional, and easily manipulated. Reports on the student protests within mainstream media outlets readily invoke analogies of Mao’s Red Guard, the violent revolutionary group that smashed centuries-old art. Most recently, the pro-government media in Taiwan did the same, going so far as calling them “terrorists.” (One KMT legislator compared the student protesters to al-Qaeda.) Other commenters argued that the students were brainwashed and manipulated by the opposition party DPP to obstruct a pact vital for Taiwan’s economy.

Of course, such depictions of the students have little basis in reality. The leaders of the March 18 occupation came largely from the “Black Island Nation Youth” a group formed in July 2013 when the trade agreement was signed. The leaders of the Black Island Nation Youth have been involved in social protest movements since 2008. Their critique has been bipartisan, aimed at KMT and DPP politicians alike. The issues they championed have run the political gamut: slowing down the construction of a proposed nuclear plant, preventing the demolition of temples, and amending an anti-protest law. J. Michael Cole, who has offered the best journalism in English on the movement, has reported that the Alliance had “consciously stayed away from all political parties, which they see as having failed society.” Cole has further noted that the student leaders have repudiated the ideological rigidity and ethnic nationalism of previous protest moments, instead focusing on specific issues and pragmatic policies.

In their founding statement, the Alliance evoked the image of Taiwan being surrounded by increasingly oppressive walls of a “black box,” as the government has operated in a shroud of secrecy. The students wrote that Taiwan’s economic prosperity had deceived the Taiwanese people, keeping them ignorant of the looming “black iron cage” that threatens to strip the Taiwanese of their freedoms. The evocative term “black iron cage” is rife with historical meaning. Many of the leaders in the Black Island Nation Youth are graduate students in sociology, and they directly invoke Max Weber’s “iron cage” of modernity, which threatens to strip individual autonomy and freedom. Their declaration also draws on the language of the Chinese writer Lu Xun, who in 1922 compared the Chinese political situation to an “iron house” that was slowly suffocating those who slept inside of it. The students have updated Weber and Lu Xun for the 21st century: the black iron cage is neoliberal globalization and crony capitalism. The free trade agreement was just one of the many walls that the government used to erect the cage.

The Black Island Nation Youth was not the only group that came out to criticize the trade agreement with China. Immediately after it was signed, even KMT figures had denounced the way the negotiations had been handled. In July 2013, Rex How, a prominent book publisher who served as special advisor to the president, caused a ruckus when he resigned his post, protesting the pact. In his public letter of resignation, he lambasted President Ma for sacrificing national security interests for the sake of temporary (and in his view, meager) economic gains. He criticized Ma for continuing to employ antidemocratic means in obfuscating the negotiations and discussions surrounding the trade pact. Several KMT legislators also initially refused to support the act, but Ma threatened to discipline them and potentially expel them from the party. Consequently, they soon fell in line.

From July until November, responding to calls for more government transparency, the KMT organized several forums to discuss the treaty. The effort was incompetent at best and malicious at worst: the forums were hastily convened and members of the audience at times were not allowed to ask questions. Members of the Black Island Nation tried to attend the hearings, but were expelled by the police. 

Many Black Island Nation Youth leaders have gained support from various grassroots organizations. Social media was crucial in establishing these ties. Since 2000, Taiwan has cultivated an active and engaged internet bulletin board system (BBS) — about 1.5 million registered users post, generating 500,000 comments a day. The BBS is intimately tied to college communities, as it is hosted by National Taiwan University. The Taiwanese have also rapidly adopted newer forms of social media — almost 60 percent of Taiwan’s population uses Facebook, the highest single country percentage in the world.

Such grassroots alliances paid off. As soon as the student protesters successfully occupied parliament in March 18, they were able to draw upon their social networks. Within a day, thousands of supporters staged peaceful sit-ins outside of the Legislative Yuan. Civic groups representing the medical and legal professions offered support. Technical crews set up live-cams outside of the parliament so the occupiers inside could follow what was happening. A florist donated 1,000 sunflowers, to symbolize an attempt to shine light through the “black-box.” Thus the movement, in Taiwanese fashion, gained a floral name. The pro-KMT media was quick to accuse the DPP of organizing the protests, but anyone with a passing knowledge of the fractious and disorganized nature of the DPP knows better: only a non-DPP organization could have mobilized such an organized and tech-savvy group.

Inside the legislature, the occupiers framed their demands as a matter of government transparency. As Ian Rowen reported, the occupiers did not advance particularly anti-China or even anti–free trade sentiments. Their focus was narrow: illegitimate legislative procedure. Ma and the legislature, they argued, should submit the pact to more rigorous oversight. To model transparent democratic politics, the students set up webcams; established a livestream of the floor of the parliament; and created an open-source website that offered transcriptions of the debate on the floor. The legislature was transformed into a large open-air seminar on democracy. Galvanized by the students, professors outside held teach-ins on topics ranging from “Training in Nonviolent Resistance” to “Transitional Democracy.”

Five days after the occupation began, President Ma held his first press conference addressing the student occupation. He reaffirmed his commitment to the trade agreement. He warned the students that their occupation violated the principle of Taiwan’s democracy, which was built on “rule of law.” He asked, “Is this the type of democracy that we want?” The press conference did not include much of the press: Ma only agreed to answer five questions before quickly leaving the stage.

The president’s press conference angered a faction of the students. That night, 200 students and citizens evaded the police, snuck into the highest government administrative building, the Executive Yuan, and sat down. The news quickly spread, and thousands of sympathizers rallied outside of the executive building. After consulting with the president, the Premier Jiang Yi-huah ordered the police to clear the building and the streets surrounding the Executive Yuan. The repression turned violent. As Yu-Yun Hsieh and Mora Weigel report, the police beat unarmed, nonviolent protesters over the head, and used water cannons to expel the students. The clashes lasted until 6 a.m. the next day, almost nine hours after the initial occupation. Around 150 were reported injured, and 61 people were arrested.

The mainstream media, largely in favor of the KMT, quickly swung into action, portraying the student protesters as “violent,” “irrational,” led by professional agitators, and financially supported by the DPP. They also painted the students as undermining the principles of democracy, and warned that the rule of law had been undermined by a mob. The students did not budge. They continued their occupation of the legislature, repeating their demands for a bill that would oversee the passage of the free trade agreement. Negotiations to decide on a meeting between broke down.

On March 27, the students called for a rally, addressed to all citizens of Taiwan, to gather in front of the Presidential building that following Sunday. On March 30, about 500,000 protesters, dressed in black, headed to the streets. (Official estimates low-balled the number at 116,000; most independent sources agree that 500,000 is fairly accurate.) The demonstration was peaceful, and the organizers had also planned to clean up the streets afterwards, returning them to pristine conditions. A series of international rallies were held simultaneously from San Francisco to Paris. 

President Ma and the Premier ignored the demands, and the occupation continued. Breaking the standoff was the Legislature Speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, who entered the occupied legislature on April 6. He agreed to the core demands of the students: he gave the verbal agreement that the Legislative Yuan would first pass a bill monitoring free trade agreements with China. President Ma claimed that he had no prior knowledge of Wang’s intentions.

Assured by Wang’s promises, the protesters decided to end the occupation. The students had never planned on occupying the building for more than three weeks, and they were ready to go home. After spending two days cleaning the legislative building and returning it to its original condition, they left the building, with a crowd of more than 10,000 waiting outside. The students pledged to continue monitoring the bill in the parliament. Since then, they also began a new series of political offensives: they want to recall legislators that support the passage of the trade agreement.


What are we to make of the movement? Critics have called the protests a sign of “immature” democracy. The Chinese media, in particular, portrayed the protests as an example of the perils of democratic chaos. Chinese disapproval, of course, is unsurprising, as democratic protests in Taiwan could have regional implications that reverberate in Hong Kong, Tibet, and other areas aiming for more autonomy within the Chinese mainland. And the Taiwanese protesters certainly have sent a clear signal to the region: they don’t want Taiwan to become like China. The current generation of Taiwanese youth has seen the environmental and political conditions across the straits, and they fear the impact that future economic and political integration will have on Taiwan’s democratic institutions, press freedoms, and environment.

Those supportive of the protesters have referred to Taiwan as a young democracy and the protests as a milestone in Taiwan’s continuing struggle for democratization. The Sunflower Movement has directly confronted Taiwan’s authoritarian past, such as media control and KMT single-party dominance in both the executive and legislative branches. The residues of the KMT past were apparent throughout the protests. In one of the more surreal events of the three-week occupation, a notorious pro-China gangster, Chang An-le (who goes by the moniker “White Wolf,” which sounds much more menacing in Chinese than in English), showed up at the parliament to intimidate the occupiers. Shouting matches broke out, but the altercation did not turn violent. (At one point White Wolf shouted, “You don’t deserve to be Chinese!” Protesters responded, “Good! We’re Taiwanese!”) The appearance of White Wolf was a reminder of the KMT’s long-standing relationship to organized crime.

The student protesters also consciously framed their protests as the latest event in a series of fights for Taiwan’s ongoing democratization. During the occupation, the students paid tribute to pro-democracy activists under Taiwan’s martial law. The students held a memorial for the 25th anniversary of the death of Cheng Nan-jung, a publisher of the underground magazine Freedom Era Weekly. On April 7, 1989, Cheng set himself on fire when the police attempted to break into his office. (The state-controlled media labeled him a terrorist; questions remains over what happened that day.)

In the past year, from Madrid to Maidan protests have emerged in the name of protecting democracy. Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement belongs to a broader global moment: societies that transitioned to democracy in the 1980s and early 1990s have come face-to-face with the limitations of their democratic systems. Of course, the geo-political complexity of the situations in Ukraine and Spain differ greatly from that of Taiwan. But the complaints are similar: political and economic interests that date back to an era of single-party rule continue to dictate the governments. The protesters want to eliminate these entrenched interests from the system.


Perhaps most urgently, the struggle in Taiwan, as in other advanced industrial democratic countries, is a battle for the soul of liberalism. What type of liberalism should reign? Is it a neoliberalism that allows for unfettered access to global capitalism? Or should it be a liberalism that prioritizes social, environmental, and economic justice above economic growth? While the students have been painted as radical rabble-rousers in the Taiwanese press, their demands were moderate, not radical. They have asked for a reform of the institutions of power, not their overturn. The students have denounced neo-liberalism and the alliance of elite interests between China and Taiwan, yet for the most part they are not protectionist; they want further integration with the broader global community, and have voiced support for some forms of trade agreements.

The occupation in Taiwan illuminates problems that all democratic governments face in the age of the internet and social media: the challenge of democratic responsiveness. These new technologies have exposed the wide gulf between what the people want and what politicians do. Social media and technology have enabled and empowered many voices, but the traditional levers of representative democracy have been unable — and in many cases, unwilling — to respond to these voices.

In one of their final acts before leaving the parliament, the students organized a series of “citizens’ assemblies,” asking people throughout Taiwan to contribute ideas of how to pass a bill that would monitor and oversee cross-strait relations. The assemblies were acts of not only defiance, but also ways to create a parallel legislative system. And what was remarkable about the Sunflower student movement is how quickly and successfully the students established a parallel “government.” They created alternative media channels, they set up open forums on the internet, and they established a participatory citizen assembly. They documented the entire process, allowing interested observers to follow the entire movement simultaneously.

Perhaps the students’ belief in a future democratic apotheosis — “if only we have more transparency, we can achieve a more perfect form of democratic governance” — is itself a mistake. As David Runciman explains in his recent book, The Confidence Trap, even “mature” democracies are prone to such moments of soul-searching. Crises, Runciman argues, constitute the fundamental nature of democracies. “The search goes out for real democracy, the true story concealed behind the mess of democratic life. This quest is invariably fruitless.” The truth of democracy lies in its messiness, the constant struggle. Even “old” democracies, Runciman reminds us, are constantly under threat, prone to crisis. There is no promised land; belief in some state of utopian democracy is an illusion.

Runciman’s admonitions should be taken to heart. Now that the occupation is over, it remains to be seen whether the occupation will make a lasting impact on Taiwan’s democratic culture. Already, traditional party politicking and retribution has kicked back into high gear, with President Ma continuing his power struggle with the Legislative Speaker Wang. The mainstream media has propagated rumors of political retribution against the protesters. The legislative impasse over the free trade agreement remains unsolved, and the Chinese government has not yet shown its cards. But for one brief moment, the student movement showed us something greater. It gave us glimpses that an alternate democratic system — one more just, more responsive, more participatory — is possible.


* Many thanks to Ren-Yuan Li, who made valuable contributions to this piece.


Albert Wu teaches history at the American University in Paris. 

LARB Contributor

Albert Wu (@albertowu) is an associate professor of history at the American University of Paris. His first book, From Christ to Confucius (Yale University Press, 2016), examines Sino-European through the lens of missionaries.He has published in academic and popular journals, including American Historical Review, Commonweal, and The Point. With Michelle Kuo, he writes a weekly newsletter:


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