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Politics

Sunflower Movement resonates one year on

Activists gather outside Taiwan's legislature on the evening of March 18 to commemorate the beginning of the Sunflower Movement one year ago.

TAIPEI -- When hundreds of Taiwanese students invaded the legislature and occupied the parliamentary floor on the night of March 18, 2014, to protest against President Ma Ying-jeou's China-friendly policies, few foresaw that it would cause a fundamental shift in the island's politics and its relations with Beijing.

     The weeks-long rally, dubbed the Sunflower Movement, ended on April 10, but its impact continues to be felt in Taiwanese society and even in the Chinese territory of Hong Kong.

     Over the past year, support for Taiwan independence returned with a vengeance, thanks in part to the slogan for the popular movement, "You have to save your own country yourself." Cross-strait talks stalled and Ma's Nationalist Party suffered a major election drubbing that has significantly undermined its chances of winning the 2016 presidential poll.

     Meanwhile, the Sunflower crowd in Taiwan and Umbrella Generation in Hong Kong forged unprecedented ties through their shared antipathy toward China manifested in mass rallies in the two economies last year.

     Wu Jieh-min, an associate research fellow at Taiwan's prestigious Academia Sinica Institute of Sociology, said the Sunflower Movement prevented the lawmakers from approving a services trade agreement with China, sabotaged collaboration between the Chinese Communist Party and Taiwan's Nationalist Party, and ruined plans for a potential meeting between Ma and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

     "The movement highlighted the Taiwanese public's resentment toward the fact that only a privileged few were benefiting from cross-strait exchanges and ordinary people had not benefited from the improving ties," said Wu.

     Wu's sentiment was echoed by Penny Chen, a college student studying diplomacy at National Chengchi University. Chen attended the Sunflower rallies and was glued to local social media sites for updates at the height of the movement.

     Coming from a relatively well-off family, Chen said she had not been particularly bothered about politics before the movement. However, she joined the rally to fight for a better future for her generation after seeing how some of her college peers have had to work to make ends meet.

     Indeed, according to official government statistics, Taiwan's average real monthly salary in 2014 was 45,494 New Taiwan dollars ($1,446), lower than the 1999 level. Overall economic growth has been tepid too. Taiwan's gross domestic product rose just 3.74% in 2014, compared with China's GDP growth of 7.4% in the same period.

     Lin Zu-yi, a spokesman for Watchout, an online news service that covers Taiwan's legislature, witnessed exchanges between Taiwanese and Hong Kong activists firsthand last September. He said a Watchout programmer travelling with him to Hong Kong was busy sharing Sunflower's live broadcasting experience with campaigners in the Chinese territory at the beginning of Occupy Central rallies.

     "People in Taiwan and Hong Kong have grown closer and they are prioritizing democracy," Lin said, adding slogans like "Today's Hong Kong, Tomorrow's Taiwan" have made younger generations on both sides feel their fates were irrevocably intertwined.

     Since Taiwanese President Ma took office in 2008, he has signed 21 pacts with China, but many now say the agreements only benefit big conglomerates but hurt Taiwan's small businesses as well as the middle class.

     The increased ties with China seem to drive the Taiwanese further away. A February poll of 1,001 people by Taiwan Indicators Survey Research showed 51.3% of Taiwanese support the island's independence, compared to 47.8% a year ago.

     But activists are not content with just keeping China at arm's length. They wish for even more political reform. Lin Fei-fan, who became a household name overnight as one of the movement's leaders, said that activists must continue to push for public supervision of cross-strait negotiations and Taiwan's continuing democratization.

     "Maybe what we can do is not just reminiscing about last year, but keep reforming," the student leader wrote on his Facebook page on the eve of the anniversary.

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