How Technology Revolutionized Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement

Facebook and Google, the favored tools of dissidents, are now shaping Taiwan’s relationship with China.

taiwanFor The DiplomatVincent Y. Chao writes: Underneath the piercing gaze of Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, a group of students sat, unshaved, unkempt and basking in the glow of their laptops. Amongst stacks of coffee cups, crudely drawn artwork, and piles of unevenly stacked office chairs, they were hard at work, plotting the next phase of their revolt against the government in Taiwan.

Three weeks earlier, the group had broken past police barriers and forcefully occupied the main Legislative assembly hall, defeating multiple attempts to evict them by the police. They sit engrossed: sending out press releases, updating the group’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, and sparking discussion on PTT (an online bulletin board favored by many of the country’s youth). Others are dozing off, or hold a blank stare in their eyes, a product of weeks of tension, uncertainty and sleep deprivation.

Initially there were only a hundred of them – students from Taiwan’s top universities energized by a series of controversial land seizures and, in this case, upset at the government’s attempt to ram through a wide-ranging services trade deal with China. Their numbers subsequently swelled, buoyed by 24 hour news coverage, Facebook shares, and, of course, volunteers from the hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic supporters that have flooded the capital Taipei’s streets in recent weeks.

Oliver Chen, 26, is a student from Taiwan’s prestigious National Taiwan University Law School. His hallmark, he says, is the colorful dress shirts he changes into every day. “Nothing else is changed. Shirts are all that I brought.” During the protests, he was responsible for the bank of computers to the left of Sun’s portrait. His team of English speakers worked with the foreign press to arrange interviews with the two protest leaders, Chen Wei-ting, 23, and Lin Fei-fan, 25.

Oliver and the rest of the students were organized. Very organized. Even the opposition, rumored to have ties to some of the student organizers, admits to such. “They could probably run a better campaign than the DPP,” said opposition leader Tsai Ing-wen during a media interview. The students have a medical center, distribution tables for snacks and goods, and even rooms for yoga or singing.

Oliver and three others, Chen Wei-ting, spokesperson Lin Yu-hsuan, and Sean Su, a blogger hailing from New York, worked hard. Revolution is serious business. Especially when it comes to answering questions posted on the social media site reddit’s Ask Me Anything forum, which connects internet users from all over the world with the group here in Taipei.

“You guys are so brave,” said one user, SuperRedneck from Florida. “I’m a student and I couldn’t even imagine overtaking a Taco Bell.” After taking a bite out of his takeout box of stir-fried noodles, Oliver paused for a second. He then responded: “Ask most of us here a couple of months ago, and we would have probably said the same.”

Thirty-five years ago, during Taiwan’s march towards democracy, these sorts of connections with the outside world would have been unthinkable. Protests were local, and even activists elsewhere in the country would have been hard-pressed to receive accurate first-hand information about ongoing events. Newspapers and magazines were tightly regulated. Phones and letters were kept under strict surveillance.

Instead of Facebook shares and instant messaging, organizers were mobilized using underground publications and clandestine meetings in smoke-filled university basements. And flyers and posters, not tweets, were how most people ended up hearing about any upcoming protests. “They’d hold a rally on Friday, and people would start to show up on Saturday and Sunday,” said Mattel Hsu, a researcher at Australia’s Monash University, specializing in Taiwan’s democracy movement.

This was the case for much of the martial law era, from the demonstrations leading up to the Kaohsiung Incident in 1979, all the way to the Wild Lily student movement in 1990. Instantaneous gatherings, much like what the students are today used to, were completely out of the question. Meanwhile, supporters overseas only learned of their efforts following the publication of news reports, if they were published at all.

Much of this is all ancient history to the students who jumped past police lines around the Legislature on the night of March 18. With the internet and cell phone signals intermittent in the chambers, the students quickly established two centers of command: one inside, and the other based in a lecture hall in a National Taiwan University campus a short walk away. They wasted no time: volunteers were appointed into security, press, social media and research teams, and the revolution was underway.

At the social media team on campus, Chen Ting-ru’s hands flew furiously over the keyboard, her concentration broken only by the occasional gulp of water. She was one of the administrators of the Black Island Youth Facebook page that was quickly going viral across the country (“likes” would jump from a few thousand to more than 200,000 in a few days’ time). Her job was to organize information coming out of the Legislature into small, easy-to-read snippets that could be readily shared amongst the movement’s supporters…(read more)

The Diplomat

Vincent Y. Chao is a former reporter at the Taipei Times. He is a writer based in Taipei, Taiwan.

One Comment on “How Technology Revolutionized Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement”

  1. […] Pundit from another Planet Facebook and Google, the favored tools of dissidents, are now shaping Taiwan’s relationship […]

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