“The Sunflower Movement gave us an unprecedented opportunity to do something beyond electoral politics.”
In a stuffy conference room in central Taipei on Jan. 7, political activists and legislators from Hong Kong and Taiwan discussed the political environments and democracy movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Tucked away in a corner, Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆), sat at a desk listening to the group, which included local politicians from Taiwan’s reform-focused New Power Party and Hong Kong democracy campaigner Joshua Wong (黃之鋒).
Despite an apparent attempt at anonymity, Lin’s presence did not go unnoticed by the cadre of local and international media. As the morning wore on, a steady stream of people approached him and eventually he agreed to an interview. As he moved to the back of the room, the dozens of cameras and reporters turned from the panel of speakers and swarmed on Lin.
The event had already grabbed headlines earlier that morning, after pro-democracy campaigner Wong and legislator Nathan Law (羅冠聰) were confronted by hundreds of pro-Beijing protestors upon arrival at Taipei’s international airport. But for a moment, it seemed Lin, once dubbed "Fan-shen” or "Fan-God" by some local media, was back, again the center of attention.
The student leader’s ongoing demonstrations against China’s growing influence in Taiwan resulted in the occupation of Taiwan’s parliament in April 2014, which drew half a million people to the streets of Taipei, and played an important role in the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (Kuomintang or KMT) landslide defeat in the 2016 general election. After being out of the spotlight for the past two years, Taiwanese, it seems, still care what he has to say.
“I feel a little ambivalent about this situation, including participating in those public forums […] and also interviews by domestic media,” Lin, 28, tells The News Lens at a café near National Taiwan University.
Since the Sunflower Movement, Lin, who still has thousands of social media followers, turned down calls to run for office. Instead, he stepped out of the spotlight, completed his military service, and is now on the final stretch of a thesis for post-graduate studies in political science at NTU.
“I think this time, for me personally, was taking a rest and reconsidering my position in the future,” Lin says.
Behind the scenes, his attention has shifted from the local reform movement to focusing on connecting with likeminded people, particularly in Asia, to spread the dual ideas of “pro-left” and “pro-independence.”
“Actually, many people thought that I have already left the spotlight, but I will do more things in the international community,” Lin says. “I think that is more important to Taiwan at this time.”
Time to spread his wings
Lin’s decision to leave Taiwan in August or September this year – he’s planning to study either in the U.S. or the U.K. – and his intention to be an advocate for Taiwan independence comes at an interesting juncture in Taiwan’s history. The island-nation has been thrust back into the forefront of international affairs after then President-elect Donald Trump’s Dec. 2 phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文), and a series of statements where Trump challenged Washington’s status-quo policy on U.S.-China-Taiwan relations.
Two weeks after the Trump-Tsai phone call, President Barrack Obama addressed relations between Taiwan, China and the United States, saying, “Taiwanese have agreed that as long as they're able to continue to function with some degree of autonomy, they won't charge forward and declare independence.” The extension of Obama’s point was that if Taiwan was to declare independence, it could increase the chance of a military response from China.
As an independence advocate, a key question Lin will face is how Taiwan can pursue its aims while avoiding armed conflict with Beijing.
Lin acknowledges “superpowers use this kind of view; once Taiwan declares independence that you will bring a lot of conflict,” but, he suggests other countries, including the United States, have to take responsibility for tension across the Taiwan Strait.
“What Taiwan is facing now is also caused by those superpowers,” he says. “Taiwan’s destiny is not on Taiwanese peoples’ hands; it has always been with those superpowers.”
Outside of military action, there are fears Beijing may move to hit Taiwan’s China-dependent economy; China, including Hong Kong and Macao, is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for about 40 percent of Taiwan’s total exports, and many Taiwanese companies have invested in China over the past two decades. So, is it not the case that China can hurt Taiwan more easily than the other way around?
“No,” Lin interjects. “I don’t think so.”
He points to the Trump-Tsai phone call – he describes it as a “super-smart act made by a small group” in the U.S. – and suggests such an action can sting in Beijing. “Actually, I think Taiwan can do a lot of this kind of thing,” he says. “China can only use the violent way to threaten Taiwan and to use the economic threats and the political threats towards to Taiwan.”
What about China’s perennial squeeze of Taiwan’s diplomatic space? Taiwan’s official ally count dropped to 21 after São Tomé and Príncipe on Dec. 20, 2016, announced it was severing diplomatic relations with Taipei. And, in an arguably more concerning sign of what lie ahead, Nigeria this month ordered Taiwan to close its office in Nigeria’s capital Abuja – a move that has been linked to a US$40 billion Chinese investment package. Over the past 12 months, China has also been taking a more active approach to blocking Taiwan’s involvement in international institutions, further thinning the opportunities for Taipei to engage with other countries.
These challenges, however, do not appear to alarm Lin.
“I would say we have already been used to this situation for a long time; we are living under threats – military, political, economic threats,” he says. “While I know that once other countries cut business ties, this makes a lot of trouble for Taiwan, I don’t really think there will be so many countries that are willing to follow China’s [orders].”
Amid China’s coercion in the diplomatic and business space, Taiwan should focus on building stronger international civil society connections, Lin says.
“To me, I am not so worried about this kind of situation; I would see this as another opportunity to reconsider our relations with China.”
A domino effect and building a progressive alliance
In one respect, Lin’s view leans on the assumption that if the United States – a “decisive power” – and Taiwan move towards normalizing relations, other countries will naturally follow suit.
“I am confident that once the United States decides to change, a lot of U.S. allies in Asia will also change their attitudes,” he says. “It won’t happen in the very short-term, but once they decide to change their foreign policy and to revise the one-China policy […] Japan, South Korea and the Southeast Asian countries they will also consider this kind of change.”
Lin believes China’s influence in the region – both in terms of its model of government and its threat to regional security – has played a part in strengthening the conservative movement. He points to the Abe administration in Japan, as well as South Korea, Singapore and the Philippines as examples where conservative power is getting stronger.
As one former diplomat recently wrote, “overdependence on China for investments and trade and the treachery of corrupt politicians have now rendered ASEAN completely vulnerable to Chinese hegemony.”
Lin says people across Asia “are facing two totally different options; they can follow the way of Taiwan’s democratization process, or, they can follow China’s authoritarian regime."
He, therefore, believes it is critical for Taiwanese to engage with likeminded citizens – left-leaning democracy advocates – across East and Southeast Asia to help build a left-wing, pro-democracy consensus.
“I will put Taiwan’s situation in this context, in terms of how we face the authoritarian forces and conservative forces together.”
To that end, Lin and other young political activists from around Asia have started the Network of Young Democratic Asians (NOYDA). He notes that after a recent exchange with students in Japan, he saw a marked difference in their attitudes towards Taiwan.
“During the dialogue, I found that many Japanese students did not know too much about the China-Taiwan situation. After that exchange, they are starting to rethink the relations with Taiwan, especially with Taiwan’s pro-independence and pro-left activists.”
In Beijing’s crosshairs
Being an outspoken internationally recognized advocate for Taiwan independence comes with its downsides. Lin is among the many Taiwanese political figures to be barred from stepping foot in Hong Kong. And, like young pro-democracy advocates from Hong Kong, he is unable to travel freely across the region because of China’s influence.
“I know that in addition to Hong Kong, the Singapore government has put me on the 'gray list,' and many Southeast Asian countries, also the same situation,” he says.
While the restrictions are “ke xi” [a pity], they are also something of a rite of passage for people in the democracy movement, he says. “It means that you do a lot and all those governments recognize your efforts.”
He is not worried about the threat of physical attacks by China-linked pro-unification groups, like the recent protest against Wong and Law on a recent trip to Taipei. But Lin is aware that his involvement may cause problems for his colleagues and friends in other countries. He points to the Singapore police investigating a social organization after Joshua Wong, who has been barred from visiting Thailand and Malaysia, spoke to the group via Skype.
“One thing I am a bit worried about is if I make some connection with activists in Vietnam, Thailand or Philippines, I will bring some trouble for them,” he says. “I know many Southeast Asian countries they worry about these connections between their people and Hong Kong and Taiwan activists.”
A new leader?
There is a reason for Beijing to be worried. What Lin and his fellow Sunflower leaders achieved in sparking the political passion of a new generation of Taiwanese and helping to bring a government to its knees, has resulted in his unique status in the island-nation and abroad.
While other movement leaders, like Huang Kuo-chang (黃國昌), heeded the call to advance into formal politics via the New Power Party – which won five seats in Taiwan’s parliament in the January 2016 general election – Lin has chosen a different path.
Of course, he has some very well-developed views on Taiwan politics; he is, after all, writing a thesis on the internal divisions within the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. For a taste: it is too early to examine the performance of the new administration, though he points out the party has a history of sacrificing progressive policies for conservative positions; if the KMT does not change its China policy or settle the internal power struggle it will not return to power; and, tensions between unions and corporates and the DPP over labor rights in Taiwan could be a “disaster for this government,” potentially leading to another mass protest event.
And while Lin agrees that he still has local influence, he has been happier without the pressure that he was under at the height of the Sunflower Movement; when he was barricaded inside Taiwan’s parliament and making decisions on-the-go that would be closley watched by the government and the 500,000 people who had taken to the streets in support.
“In the social movement perspective, influential characters, you can do a lot of things and it means that your movement will have a bigger chance to win, it is good for the social movement. But personally it also means a lot of responsibility, a lot of pressure, a lot of obligations,” Lin says.
Lin still keenly feels “a sense of responsibility and obligation to do more,” and he won’t rule out running for office in the future, but right now he believes he has more to learn before he can fulfill perhaps a greater potential than could be achieved as a legislator.
“I already know a lot about domestic emotions, domestic politics. But I think what I lack is this kind of international perspective, to deal with the international politics for Taiwan,” he says. “The Sunflower Movement gave us an unprecedented opportunity to do something beyond electoral politics. That is what I think, and also what I have decided to do.”
Living overseas and being engaged with political activists from around the region will put Lin increasingly in the consciousness of international media, particularly if the current level of interest in U.S.-Taiwan-China ties does not recede.
However, Lin, with whom the burden of fame did not necessarily sit comfortably, is “trying to get rid of the ‘student leader’ label.”
“While I am going to study abroad, I know the status of ‘student’ will pass very soon. People cannot live in the label for a very long time.”
So what should we call him? Taiwan’s pro-independence leader?
He laughs at the suggestion, “It is my honor to be labeled like this, but it is also trouble.”
“I would say I am participating in this movement, but if you mean to be recognized as the leader I am not sure,” he says. “I think, especially in Taiwan’s context, to be called as the ‘leader’ is kind of weird.”
Still, behind the humility, lurk a serious ambition and, perhaps, a sense of a greater destiny.
“I would say ‘the leader’ will not always follow the expectations of the people; they have to decide, find some balance between their personal ambitions, their personal goals, and the public’s expectations,” he says. “Once you can manage those different expectations, including your own and the public, then that will make you a better leader.”
“I believe that is my personal course that I have to fulfill first.”
Editor: Olivia Yang