‘Study Hard and Don’t Meddle in Politics’: Media Representation of Taiwan’s 318 Student Occupation

Emilia Chi-Jung Cheng is a research student in Film Studies at the University of Sussex. Her research deals with issues of historical representation, identity, and nationhood across contemporary transnational filmmaking practices across Taiwan, Hong Kong, and China. Kwan-Fan Su is also a research student in Film Studies at the University of Sussex. His research deals with sport and its representation of nation and identity in Taiwanese film. This month, Emilia Chi-Jung Cheng and Kwan-Fan Su have co-authored the following piece about the ongoing Taiwanese activist actions against a China-Taiwan trade pact signed last year and the visual representations of student protests within Taiwan.

On March 18, 2014, student activist groups in Taiwan forcibly occupied the debate chamber of the Legislative Yuan (lifa yuan)[1]. This occupation was organized through the collaborative effort across a number of student activist groups to protest against the KMT (Kuomintang) administration’s lack of legislative procedure when passing the “Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services” with China through executive order[2]. This economic pact has significant impact on Taiwan’s service industries that comprises almost‭ ‬70% of Taiwan’s GDP, and implies a risk to Taiwan’s political status quo. The students have gained wide public support and the number of people gathering outside the Legislature to demonstrate continues to increase.

Demonstrators outside the Legislature. Photo Credit: Wilson Sun
Demonstrators outside the Legislature.
Photo Credit: Wilson Sun

Whether the students’ occupation movement will continue to garner public support, however, lies on winning the image battle in the public’s perception of what ‘social activism’ looks like. Conventional‭ ‬media coverage of student activism in Taiwan repeatedly replicates a Confucian patriarchal social hierarchy and represents students from two angles: either as a rowdy collective that lacks self-control—thus labelling them with the term baomin (‘violent masses’)—or as naïve, innocent students who lack agency that have been manipulated by the opposing political party, the DPP[3]. These two seemingly contradictory representations, however, are two sides of the same coin that follow Taiwan’s social discourse of Confucian middle class-ness and respectability: young people should listen to their elders and become useful members of society. Therefore, they should ‘study hard and don’t meddle in politics.’ This kind of discourse not only mutes the students’ subjectivity and strips their rights to participate in the public political sphere, but also infantilizes them by rendering them incapable of political participation because politics is ‘for grownups.’

Students who occupied the Legislature. Photo Credit: The News Lens
Students who occupied the Legislature.
Photo Credit: The News Lens

This social discourse of Confucian middle class-ness and respectability can in fact be addressed from social and cultural aspects of Taiwan’s transition from a dictatorship to a liberal capitalist democracy. During the era of martial law (1949-1987), the KMT actively discouraged intellectuals from participating in political activities to consolidate its power over the civilians since the February 28, 1947 massacre of disgruntled Taiwanese, many comprising of students. Thereafter, it was illegal to form political parties, groups, or to publish articles and images without the approval by the KMT government. Intellectuals critical of the state were arrested and “disappeared” without a trial in this period, dubbed as “White Terror,” until the lifting of martial law in 1987. Through Taiwan’s literarati, resistance to cultural and political hegemony culminated in conflict between the state bureaus and activist publications that led to the self-immolation of freedom of speech activist Cheng Nan-Jung in 1989. This incident led to public outcry pressuring the KMT to re-evaluate its position on freedom of speech, but also allowed the state to cast the image of dissidents as perpetrators of “violence.” Pressure for political liberalization ensued in the “Wild Lily” (yebaihe) student demonstrations in 1992. 

The Wild Lily demonstrations employed anti-aesthetics to visually conceptualize the zeitgeist of the movement, and invoked rustic local (bentu) themes to accentuate the students’ diametric political positions from the ruling “Chinese” KMT “refined” culture. Many student activist leaders who participated in Taiwan’s democratization movement in the 90s became party members of Taiwan’s first oppositional party, the DPP. As a grass-root minority party, the DPP often employed tactics in the Legislature to intervene in meeting procedures. The tension between the KMT and the DPP often resulted in the legislators’ physical manoeuvres that ended up on the international media. Due to the activist background of these DPP legislators, the domestic media coverage of these tensions intentionally conflated student activism with violence.

Due to this socio-political context, most student activism groups in Taiwan have had closer ties with the DPP. Therefore, through its power and close ties with the media, the KMT has continuously used the tactics of smearing student activists as “green”—the party colour of the DPP—in mainstream media in order to discredit the legitimacy and diminish the impact of student activism on social issues. In the last two years, however, new activist groups have deliberately distanced themselves from the DPP, thus subverting the image of activism as rowdy by shifting the focus from political dynamics to the people’s rights to exercise citizenship. Even though Taiwan’s social activism dates as far back to the 20s, citizenship awareness (gongmin yishi) has only penetrated public consciousness in the last year or so.

The August 2013 demonstration for the death of army corporal Hung Chung-Chio who died from abuse in the army changed the perception that young people were apolitical and only half-heartedly participated in social issues by clicking “Like” on Facebook. The activist group Citizen 1985 led the demonstration and garnered the support of 250,000 people on the streets. At the same time, we need to note that one of the reasons for the success of this demonstration, and of the raise of profile of citizenship in Taiwan’s public consciousness, was how the demonstration was able to maintain the image of respectability. Media coverage reported how families joined the procession—implying a wide middle class participation—and that it proceeded orderly and peacefully. In addition, the general public was impressed by how demonstrators left no litter or garbage on the streets, further suggesting that the demonstration did not come at a social cost (shehui chengben).

The currently on-going 318-student occupation movement has re-tooled the Confucianist social structural order to its advantage in order to subvert media representation of student activism as rowdy or naïve. Academics have offered to take turns in holding open-space lectures outside the Legislature about the impact of the Taiwan-China economic pact, issues of citizenship, and Taiwan’s political democratic structure. With the backing of numerous academics that belong to an elite social class, society has, in a way, allowed the students to finally exercise the citizenship rights they possessed all along. Student activists interviewed by the media presented their claims with clear rhetoric and stressed the importance of a “rational” demonstration, thus returning the media’s gaze of students as being a violent mob or a group of manipulated pawns. Many of these students are pursuing postgraduate degrees in Taiwan’s top universities, and in a Confucian society that values academic merit, this status has provided the students with social capital to occupy the Legislature.

Doctors and volunteers set-up a medical station. Photo Credit: Wilson Sun
Doctors and volunteers set-up a medical station.
Photo Credit: Wilson Sun

Therefore, the key for the students to maintain public support is to manage the representation of the demonstration in the media. The demonstration has employed the strategy of civil disobedience, with the supporting public sitting outside the Legislature listening to lectures or musicians’ performance. However, emerging discourses within student activist groups have argued how activism is not supposed to be “respectable” and gentrified, but needs to take more assertive action for the students’ voices to be heard. Dissatisfied with President Ma Ying-Jeou’s press conference response to the demonstration, a second group of student activists occupied the Executive Yuan on the night of March 23[4]. However, even though this occupation employed a more forceful method, the students also used civil disobedience tactics by using their bodies to resist the police’s forceful eviction from the premises.

Demonstrators gathered outside listening to a lecture. Photo Credit: Wilson Sun
Demonstrators gathered outside listening to a lecture.
Photo Credit: Wilson Sun

It will be interesting to see whether the 318-student occupation will change Taiwan’s social attitudes towards activism. Using the sunflower as a symbol for Taiwan’s future, the demonstration has been named the Sunflower Revolution. However, neither the students nor the middle class are prepared for any bloodshed. So far President Ma Ying-Jeou has not addressed the students’ demands directly. We hope that President Ma will recognize that the onus of resolving this standoff lies in his wisdom to diffuse the situation.


[1] The Legislative Yuan is the equivalent of the UK’s parliament.

[2] The KMT is also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party. The KMT lost the Chinese Civil War to the Chinese Communists in 1949, subsequently retreated to Taiwan.

[3] DPP is the acronym for “Democratic Progressive Party.”

[4] The Executive Yuan is the Office of the Cabinet.

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