On Tuesday, March 18, a group of students took over the Legislative Yuan, the national legislature in downtown Taipei. Their purpose was to protest the passage of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) by the ruling Kuomintang (KMT). Following up on the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) that President Ma Ying-jeoh signed into law in 2010, the CSSTA is the next in a series of measures that the KMT has taken to deepen ties between Taiwan and China. President Ma argues that these are the only way to keep the Taiwanese economy vital—despite the threats they pose to the country’s independent identity and to its democratic institutions.
The protest swelled to include over 3,000 people from all walks of life; it was supposed to be peaceful. But on the night of March 23, a group of protesters snuck into the Executive Yuan, the highest administrative building, to occupy the chamber. They posted information on Facebook inviting supporters join, and hundreds did. A few hours later, Premier Jiang Yi-Huah, who had consulted President Ma, ordered hundreds of police to use violence to evict the protesters. In the early hours of March 24, over 100 people were injured.
The political events that inspired the protests—and the stream of bloody images now flooding social media—suggest that democracy in Taiwan is under threat, and that the mainstream media is part of the problem. Many newspapers and TV stations have failed to provide full and accurate information about the events that have taken place. They have downplayed or dismissed the activities of the protesters as a “carnival” or a “circus.” To get an idea of what happened the night coming to be known as “324,” we have to look at the narratives and images proliferating online.
The origins of the current controversy go back to last June, when the CSSTA was signed in Shanghai by representatives of the Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF)—a bureaucratic appendage that the Taiwanese government created in 1991 to handle technical and business matters with China—and its Chinese counterpart, the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits. This treaty was meant as a follow up to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), a huge bilateral trade agreement that the same organizations signed in June 2010 in Chongqing. The ECFA was hailed as the most important agreement between the countries since their split in 1949. Before signing the CSSTA, the leaders of the SEF arranged for academics and NGOs to carry out eight hearings on its possible impact in a single week, but these were not open to the public.
Because very little of the CSSTA has been made public—only six of its 170-some pages have been circulated to the press—its specific provisions remain poorly understood. The CSSTA aims to facilitate cross-strait investment in dozens of service-related sectors such as banking, healthcare, tourism, films, and telecommunications. It will make it easier for Chinese businessmen and their family members to apply for short-term visas to Taiwan, to set up offices and branches of Chinese businesses on the island, and to purchase large stakes in Taiwanese industries. While lawyers have asked whether the CSSTA does not constitute a new immigration law in disguise, the protesters insist that it will severely damage the Taiwanese service sector—which employs nearly 6 million people, over a quarter of the island’s population. A provision that allows Chinese publishing houses to retail and distribute in Taiwan has also raised worries over the freedom of the Taiwanese press.
But most importantly, critics are fearful that by buying up enough of the Taiwanese economy, China will gradually reduce the island to the status of a specially administered region like Hong Kong or Macau. (When the ECFA passed in 2010, many noted that it resembled agreements that China has concluded with those regions.) A Canadian journalist from the Diplomat, J. Michael Cole, speculated that the CSSTA was a first step toward China’s “buying reunification” with “no missiles required.”
The storm of protest escalated when its ratification drew near. But the KMT wanted to ratify the agreement as soon as possible. The main opposition party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), wanted to make sure they had time to review the CSSTA carefully. But their attempts to delay its ratification failed. On March 17, 2014, KMT legislator Chang Ching-Chung claimed that the ninety-day limit for parliament to review the treaty had passed. He disappeared briefly from the legislative chamber and returned declaring that the CSSTA was now law. While it had been debated as a “prospective treaty,” Chang argued that in fact it was as an “executive order,” which the signature of the President sufficed to make law. The process had only taken thirty seconds.
The protests began at midnight, on March 18, when 200 people gathered outside the Legislative Yuan. Student protesters in the crowd climbed the fence, broke a window, and—determined to break the record time in which Chang had passed the CSSTA—managed to occupy the chamber within half a minute. The guards on duty were taken by surprise and failed to stop them. Once the occupiers had taken control of the building, they piled up chairs at the entrances and exits to block the police from coming in.
Soon additional supporters were gathering outside the building. Legislators from the DPP joined them shortly afterward, sitting outside the legislature to express their solidarity with the student movement. (The student occupiers politely asked the DPP members to leave, saying that they had not come to represent any political party, but to demand a better future for themselves and their country.) That first night, the police tried to enter three times, but in vain. Having no way to retake the Legislative Yuan, the police blocked the exits. They would prevent the students in the inner chamber from using the restroom for the next few days.
On Tuesday morning, the protesters woke up to find a box of sunflowers outside the gate; they learned that the Legislative Yuan orders these daily. Each person took a sunflower and used it to decorate the barbed-wire gates and barricades police had set up around the building. From this point, the media began to call the occupation the “Sunflower Student Movement” (taiyanghua xue yun)—a nickname that deliberately recalled the Wild Lily Student Movement (ye baihe xue yun) in March 1990 that helped transform Taiwan into a multiparty democracy.
Taiwan has a robust tradition of student protest, and the two graduate students who have emerged as the leaders of the Sunflower Student Movement are experienced activists. Lin Fei-Fan joined the Wild Strawberries Movement in 2008, and in 2012 he launched the Campaign Against Pro-China Media Monopoly, –protesting the recent concentration of the ownership of media media ownership in the hands of a small number of pro-China businessmen. Meanwhile Chen Wei-Ting became famous across Taiwan last September, when he scolded Liu Cheng-hung, a KMT member and the mayor of Miaoli County, for his part in a corrupt building project: Chen threw a shoe at him, which struck him in the head. The mainstream media dismissed Chen’s act as a case of “bad manners.” But the owner of a Miaoli cafe displayed the shoe as a trophy. Chen went on to organize a new group called the Black Island Nation Youth Front.
The protesters’ motives for occupying parliament were straightforward: if the representatives could no longer represent the people, it was the responsibility of the people to stand up and speak for themselves. Their demand was simple: withdraw the treaty, and start the negotiation with China over from the beginning. The occupiers gradually realized how difficult their situation was. For several days, they had no access to a restroom; police also shut down the air conditioner in the building. Mainstream media outlets made light of the conditions, joking about whether the protesters were stooping to defecate in public. Others lifted video clips of the students doing exercises or singing in the chamber and asked dismissively whether they took revolution to be carnival.
Still, the group remained well organized. Every time someone occupying the Legislative Yuan grew tired, a replacement would come in. Many professors in sociology and humanities not only encouraged their students to “do the right thing,” but began giving scheduled lectures on democracy in the streets. Volunteer medical teams, reporters, and lawyers soon came to the legislature to look after the occupiers, reminding them to take care of themselves. People donated food, paper towels, and bottled water. Professionals gathered after work to cheer on the occupiers. More and more people joined the sit-in outside. When it started to rain, they put on yellow slickers.
Since March 18, the occupiers have spread news, shared thoughts, and made appeals to supporters on Facebook and other social media. One student used a pair of house slippers to attach his iPad to a podium and broadcast a livestream of what was going on inside the chamber: occupiers ate, sleep, sang songs, and dutifully recycled the plastic bottles they drank water from. The artist Chen Ching-Yuan drew a caricature of the president with antlers on his head.
After five days, Premier Jiang responded to the protesters, saying he wanted to have a conversation with student leader Lin Fei-fan on Saturday, March 22. After changing the meeting time three times, Premier Jiang arrived at 4 PM. Lin insisted that Jiang had to recognize the protester’s appeals—to withdraw the treaty and restart negotiations—as a condition of conversation. Jiang refused, and belittled the occupiers, who then demanded that he leave. The conversation lasted thirteen minutes. Student protesters uploaded the complete footage to YouTube; the clips that TV stations showed were dramatically edited.
On Sunday, March 23, President Ma finally showed up for an international press conference. However, he used this as an occasion not to address the demands of the occupiers but to reaffirm the importance of the CSSTA. Although more than 100 journalists were present, Ma only took five questions—three of them from representatives of the corporate media. One journalist asked, “President Ma, what do you feel when seeing students hanging our national flag upside down?” “My heart is aching,” Ma said, “and I am sad.”
For the leaders of the Sunflower Student Movement, this perfunctory press conference was the last straw. At 7:35 PM, around 200 protesters snuck into the Executive Yuan. The news was quickly circulated on Facebook and attracted thousand of supporters: doctors, lawyers, legislators, and other members of the public all joined a sit-in outside the cabinet. At 10:30 PM, Premier Jiang mobilized the police. Hundreds of riot police and ordinary law-enforcement officers stood by with batons and shields. Then, at midnight, Jiang gave the order for the first eviction.
It started at the back door. Police asked the sitters to leave; if they refused, they grabbed them by their necks and dragged them out. Several TV reporters were on the scene but turned away. The footage that professional cameramen captured shows supporters, seated in the back rows, chanting against their tolerance of police violence.
At 1:20 AM, the Black Island Nation Youth Front held a press conference. Student leader Lin Fei-fan spoke out against the violent eviction outside the Executive Yuan. Less than twenty minutes later, police asked press reporters and cameramen to leave. The repression then turned violent: police at the back door of the Executive Yuan began to beat unarmed protesters with batons, aiming directly at their heads. Some of them were immediately struck unconscious; those who managed to walk were bleeding badly. The second eviction began at 2:20 AM. Before running at the protesters, the riot force took off their badges so that their names would be hidden. Hundreds of police kettled the occupiers.
President Ma and Premier Jiang had made up their mind to clear up the streets. For the next few hours, doctors and lawyers were unable to get through the barricades. The media were blocked off too. At 4:24 AM the final eviction began. Water trucks arrived at Zhongxiao E. Road and Zhongshan S. Road, and the police used water cannons to blast the occupiers. By 5:30 AM, they had driven the 200 students out of the cabinet. Wei Yang, a member of the Black Island Nation Youth Front, claimed full responsibility for their illegal entry and was arrested, but the police soon released him. The last clash between the protesters and the police subsided around 6 AM, just as most people were waking up.
On Monday morning, mainstream newspapers and TV stations hardly referred to the violence of the previous night. In a press conference, Premier Jiang claimed that the occupiers had caused damage to the building; he accordingly had permitted the police to evict the protesters by carrying them away and using water cannons. The beatings, of course, were never mentioned. Many stations ran footage of Deputy Secretary General Hsiao Chia-chi coming back to the Executive Yuan in the morning, complaining that the occupiers had eaten cakes in the building that belonged to him.
Social media tells a different story. Hong Shenhan, the vice secretary of Green Citizen’s Action Alliance, recalled the violence:
While I was being dragged out, one of the riot police grabbed my hair and pulled me into a circle of five or six other policemen. Inside, there were three or four people who had fallen down and were on the ground; as soon as they fell, the police started kicking them. One of them was an aunty, fifty or sixty years old. She was weeping, and cried out: “I have not come to fight, I am looking for my child; do not hit me, please, I am begging you.” Immediately, the policeman standing behind her jabbed her a few times in the back with his elbow. He finished off by kicking her, and saying to her in an ice-cold whisper: “I own you. I’m in charge.”
Xie Mengting, a young woman who was protesting for the first time, described her shock when the police beat her up—she had never imagined that they would touch protesters, much less women. An activist who uses the Facebook avatar Zeus Chimera posted from the hospital to describe how he was treated by the police:
When the cops began attacking us, I grabbed my cell phone and shoved it in my back pocket. I joined hands with those around me, as a sign of “nonviolent non-cooperation” (heping bu hezuo kangzheng). I was in the third or fourth row.
The riot police don’t care whether you’re male or female, they push everyone around the same. They might give you a warning. They might not. There was a guy in the row right in front of me who had two police strike him in the back of the head with their batons, he sat down on the ground as if he was dying, and they immediately started trampling him, and tugging his hair. A girl was right in front of me who did not follow the policemen’s warning, and they immediately started slapping her and boxing her ears.
In the midst of all this, many of the people, starting from the back, began shouting “Peace, peace!” But the police did not listen. They just kept beating us up. When my turn came, I refused to obey their orders, and so they dragged me down. I was resisting, so the policeman hit me in the forehead, near my left temple, six times, but I still didn’t obey. One cop grabbed my shoulders, another one grabbed me and held me around the collarbone, and dragged me forcefully over onto the heap of the policemen.
The riot police have formed two lines. Outside, we cannot see anything. We could not see the inside either. They were kicking the whole group of us, I was pulled to the front of the group, then I was immediately kicked back into the middle by three or four feet. I kicked back at the legs, but then immediately I was kicked in the back of the skull, again and again.
After they had finished throwing me out [of the circle], the riot police were groping me, and groping my butt trying to find my cell phone. They tossed it to the back and I could not find it no matter how hard I looked.
Wei Liulin, a doctor who showed his support for the people occupying the legislature since the beginning, recalls how the police actively interfered with medical workers who had come to help:
Early this morning, the police broke up the temporary medical station that had been set up across the road from the Executive Yuan, and ordered all of the health care workers stationed there to leave. We resisted, saying that we wanted to keep working, because more people might be injured at any time, but the cops said that we had to leave at once, or else they would make us leave.
Because we were worried for the safety of our colleagues, we left, humiliated. The cops burst into applause, and congratulated themselves on their victory.
I thought of yesterday, how just after we had entered the Executive Yuan, a policeman fell and was injured on the second floor. Immediately, I grabbed the four meter ladder, climbed up, and told people that it was time to go, and people immediately cleared the way to the policeman and allowed me to bring him to a doctor. I cannot understand why on earth the police are so much more cold-blooded toward the people than the people are to them.
At first, I thought that the police attack only represented the frenzied behavior of certain individuals. But when I heard their applause, I realized, that they have all lost their minds. I guess that this is what people mean when they talk about turning bloodthirsty from killing.
“I do not intend to place all the blame on the policemen themselves, because they are just following the orders that they get from this corrupt system,” Wei concludes. “But today, my heart is broken.”
Over 100 people were injured during the attack; fifty of them were occupiers, the others were policemen who were accidentally injured by their peers. Witness narratives about what is being called “324” or “The 324 Event” have continued to proliferate online. They are driven not only by anger at the government, but with frustration at the monopoly media, who have constantly ignored and distorted existing footage.
The movement supporters initiated a new campaign, asking memebrs of the public to contribute a small sum to collectively buy an advertisement in Apple Daily, a major Taiwanese newspaper, and the New York Times. They raised 1,500,000 NT dollars ($50,000) in thirty-five minutes to buy an advertisement on the front page of Apple Daily, and 6,330,000 NT dollars (221,000 US dollars) in three hours for the New York Times. More than 3,000 people had contributed to the campaign and most of them didn’t know each other in real life. Apple Daily published the advertisement on March 25.
Those standing in solidarity also include prominent public figures. Before we published this essay, we received a poem from the filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang dedicated to the protesters on March 24. We would like to conclude with it:
Truly, it is a dark thing to see students being shoved by the batons and shields of the police,
To hear the shrill cries of their helpless struggle, is piercing.
Children never beat adult, adults never listen to the voices of children.
Much less the hearts of children, which are so innocent.
Adults want fame. They want power. In the name of the state and the happiness of the people,
What they satisfy is their own selfishness,
but the happiness that children long for and strive for is not like this,
So they jump on the grown up table,
Shouting, We don’t want to be like you
When we grow up. We don’t want to be like you. How could we?
These are the brave children of Taiwan I see,
Whom I weep for, and feel for, and who make me proud.