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Ian Rowen looks back on the 2014 Sunflower occupation and its lasting effects on Taiwan.

INTERVIEW: Ian Rowen on the Sunflower Movement and Youth Activism in Taiwan

2019/03/22 , Opinion
Cat Thomas
Credit: Courtesy of Ian Rowen
Cat Thomas
Cat Thomas is a freelance journalist based in Taipei. She covers anything from culture to tech to travel, and sometimes all of those combined if she can swing it.

Readers who followed the Sunflower and Umbrella movements may well be familiar with the works of Dr. Ian Rowen (伊恩). At the time of the movements, he was affiliated at Academia Sinica, supported by a Fulbright fellowship to work on his PhD in Geography, which he completed at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2016. He was present at both protests, and wrote on them for media publications including The Guardian. He went on to publish academic papers based on his observations, although his initial involvement with the Sunflower Movement was not originally intended to be an academic endeavor.

Few people could be better placed to write on the region. Rowen, 39, was born in Alaska, grew up both there and Los Angeles, and has since spent most of his time somewhere in Asia. He first visited Asia as a 15-year-old obsessed with Balinese gamelan, and then went on a college junior year exchange to Hong Kong, he recalls, “on something of a whim, thinking I wanted to learn to to read Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu in the original, and meanwhile see what post-handover Hong Kong was like.”

He followed this up by backpacking around Southeast Asia, passed Y2K at Angkor Wat, and the following summer visited Taiwan for the first time before backpacking from Xi’an to Xinjiang and then to the Tibetan Plateau. Soon after graduating college, he moved to Taiwan to study Chinese and later work in media before moving to China, where he was a Visiting Scholar at Fudan University in Shanghai. This was followed by a stint in the Philippines, then graduate school in Colorado, then back to Taiwan for his aforementioned postdoc. Over the course of his rather illustrious career, he’s worked as a translator, journalist, musician, tour guide, hotelier and entrepreneur.

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Credit: Courtesy of Ian Rowen
Ian Rowen on the Playa at Burning Man, August 2013.

Currently the Assistant Professor of Geography and Urban Planning in the School of Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, a position he has held since 2017, Rowen’s broad interests and skills – he’s also the Meta-Regional Representative for Burning Man and a fellow of the World Economic Forum (WEF) – are reflected his cross-appointments to the School of Art, Design, and Media, and the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

The News Lens caught up with Dr. Rowen to talk about Sunflowers, transitional justice, Burning Man and the WEF, and his upcoming book on cross-Strait geopolitics.

The News Lens: You documented the Sunflower occupation in your 2015 article “Inside Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement: Twenty-Four Days in a Student-Occupied Parliament, and the Future of the Region.” (The Journal of Asian Studies, 74(1), 5-21). What led to you being in Taiwan at the time?

Ian Rowen: I was on a Fulbright fellowship to conduct my doctoral research on the geopolitics of tourism from China to Taiwan. As it happened, our cohort met with Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) just a few days before the occupation started. At that meeting, my group posed him a difficult question about the services trade deal that triggered it all, and his poor response actually made the local news. [The scholars asked how the media landscape in Taiwan would be affected by the Cross-Strait Services agreement, particularly how the government planned to counterbalance the potential manipulation of public opinion through investment in Taiwan’s media, as Storm Media (in Chinese) reported the following day, Ma either didn’t understand or dodged the question.]

A few days later, I first entered the Sunflower occupation with no expectation of documenting it, but as things rolled along, I realized I had a lot of unique data, and as there were no scholarly insider reports yet available, I poured myself into writing the piece in the months after we left the building.

TNL: How did you come to enter the Legislative Yuan on Mar. 19, 2014? What did you consider to be your role and what were you doing while you were inside the Legislative Yuan?

Ian: I first went to observe the scene and spoke with some very impressive demonstrators inside the courtyard. I returned the following day to find a ladder with a long line of aspiring occupiers being guarded by a very capable young woman. I waited my turn, explained my interest, was allowed up and quickly astonished by the level of care and tactical sophistication already evident inside. There were rumors that the building might be stormed or the power and plumbing turned off any minute so on the advice of people who were concerned for my safety, I left for the night. Of course I couldn’t think of anything else for the next 18 hours. I went back the next day, somehow talked my way back in through another entrance (by then there was no more ladder and conditions were very precarious but it still seemed worth it), and then spent most of the next 22 days in or around the building.

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Credit: Courtesy of Ian Rowen
Inside the Legislative Yuan during the occupation, March 2014.

For the first few days, I was there mostly in an observational and communicative capacity, getting to know people inside, and posting frequent updates with photos to Facebook – at that point I was perhaps the only person doing that consistently in English. As work teams formalized and an official Facebook and Twitter feed were set up, I was eventually absorbed into the foreign media and translation team, where I helped with translation and social media, and got a quasi-official occupier staff badge that allowed me to enter and exit freely.

Throughout, I saw my role as one of connection, not representation. This means I made no claims to speak on behalf of the movement. Whenever international media outlets contacted me, I hooked them up with articulate activists.

TNL: Were there other non-Taiwanese inside the Legislative Yuan? How did it feel to be at the center of the action as it were? Are there any moments that particularly stand out for you?

Ian: There were a few journalists coming and going, several international researchers who stayed for a very short while, and a few international students (all of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, mostly from the National Taiwan University law school) who also joined the translation team, including a Malaysian national. There were even a few Chinese exchange students hanging out inside in the early days, and one local arts student, originally from Hong Kong, who stayed the whole time. We happily reunited in her hometown during the Umbrella Movement later that year.

TNL: Where were you when the Executive Yuan was stormed on the evening of Mar. 23?

Ian: At home failing to recover from the past two or three sleepless nights. I had just started running a bath when the campaign to storm the building started. Instead of getting much-needed rest, I spent the whole night worrying and texting furiously with people inside and outside the building.

TNL: As a student-led movement the enduring images are those of students lining the streets, or young spokespeople. What other demographics did you encounter during the occupation and street protests?

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Credit: Courtesy of Ian Rowen
Ian (L) pictured with Mr. Lin, who organised the recycling within the Legislative Yuan having been caught up in the initial wave of students entering on the first night. He remained throughout the occupation and was affectionately referred to as A-bei by the occupiers.

Ian: Students and young people were certainly visible and durably photogenic, but seasoned NGO activists, artists and musicians, and academics were also involved. Also, as the occupation stabilized and the scene outside grew carnivalesque, it brought out a wide variety of onlookers, concerned citizens, and kooks.

TNL: How do you think youth activism has developed in Taiwan in the aftermath of the Sunflower Movement? With the benefit of hindsight, are there any moments or figures that stand out five years later?

Ian: Several Sunflower participants went on to form the New Power Party (NPP), which had a strong electoral showing in its first round. Less formally, there were major strides in the anti-nuclear and marriage equality campaigns, although these achievements have been challenged more recently. Meanwhile, some other post-movement parties have fared less well in elections, and other new groups seem to have largely splintered or been subsumed into older NGOs or parties. Activists’ moods seem grim now after the shock 2018 elections, but they were also grim just before Sunflower, and the experience and confidence of the Sunflower generation will continue to pay dividends we can’t even anticipate yet.

TNL: Taiwan has had an interesting five years since the Sunflower occupation with a change of administration and a revised referendum law opening up the path to “direct democracy.” In your chapter “Youth Activism” in Routledge Handbook on Civil Society in Asia (2018, Routledge) you compare youth activism in Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong in 2014-2015. In the conclusion you comment that the supporters of the 2014 protests in Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong were “too savvy” to push for “regime change or other radical measures that … may have allowed religious or military groups to fill a power vacuum.” What are your thoughts on the influence of religion in Taiwan’s political structure?

Ian: That observation was mostly meant to compare the 2014 wave of East Asian protests with the preceding Arab Spring, rather than provide any substantive analysis of the role of religion in Taiwanese politics. That having been said, some of the more prominent actors in Taiwanese politics have included the Presbyterian Church, which had historically provided some aid to democracy and indigenous activists, and was also visible during Sunflower, although it (and some other Christian and Buddhist groups) have since taken some surprising stances on other social issues important to youth activists, such as marriage equality.

TNL: You co-authored the first piece on Taiwan to appear in the “International Journal of Transitional Justice” with your sister Dr. Jamie Rowen – author of “Searching for Truth in the Transitional Justice Movement” (Cambridge University Press 2017). How was the experience of writing with your sibling?

Ian: Quite wonderful. The article allowed a smooth match of our complementary interests, and was fairly easy to do despite our being on opposite sides of the earth. We had a collaboration in mind for a while, and Tsai’s inauguration speech, with its focus on transitional justice, provided the perfect opportunity to bring Taiwan more scholarly attention.

TNL: In the paper, a shortened version of which was run in The News Lens in 2017, you posit that Taiwan’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) “has the potential not only to reframe narratives of Taiwan’s democratic transition but also to affect its geopolitical position and participation in international institutions.” How successful do you think the TRC has been so far in this framework?

Ian: If the last election and the frequent media and Kuomintang (KMT) attacks on the Transitional Justice Commission are any indication, the idea of transitional justice has so far failed to produce any kind of domestic consensus. That having been said, the language of transitional justice has suffused other forms of geopolitical expression. An interesting recent example of this is the January 2019 letter to Xi Jinping, signed by 26 of the 28 members of the Indigenous Transitional Justice Commission, which criticizes Xi and China’s claims to sovereignty over Taiwan, and presents indigenous Taiwanese as champions of human rights and democracy.

TNL: In November 2018, you presented at a symposium at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland named “Burning Man and Transformational Event Cultures.” How did it come about that you were chosen to speak at the first ever-academic conference on Burning Man? How did the symposium compare to other academic conferences you’ve participated in?

Ian: I first started participating in Burning Man in 2001, right before I moved to Taiwan. This was right around the time Burning Man was starting to globalize and build a regional network of events and communities. I kept going back to the main event and soon volunteered to serve as Regional Contact (i.e. Representative) for the organization there and later in China after I moved there. By 2014, I helped shepherd some of the first Burning Man events in Taiwan and China, developed some Taiwan and China-themed art projects at the main event in Nevada, and hosted an Asia Burner Leadership Summit in Taipei, which was attended by various regional leaders as well as the late event founder Larry Harvey and CEO Marian Goodell, who loved Taiwan by the way. So, before I started thinking about Burning Man in any academic sense, I had a deep well of data that has actually made it somewhat difficult for me to write about it with any critical distance.

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Credit: Tobie Openshaw
Asia Burner Leadership Summit in May 2015 at the Dream Community in Xizhi, New Taipei. Amongst other participants pictured are Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell (3rd left) and founder Larry Harvey (center), Ian Rowen, and Dream Community founder Gordon Tsai (2nd right).

The Switzerland conference was part of a multi-year study funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and run by Graham St. John, a unique anthropologist who has written several books on festival culture, among other things. I was a good fit for an invitee, as both a professional academic and as someone with a longstanding connection to the event and organization. I actually found the conference at least as intellectually stimulating, and certainly more fun, than most other academic events I’ve attended. A striking feature – alternately awkward and wonderful – was the active participation of several Burning Man staff in the event, which meant that a major object of the study, in a sense, was present in the room with us. The Swiss team is continuing their research, particularly on Burning Man in Europe.

Looking ahead, Graham, some other scholars and I aim to follow up the conference with a roundtable discussion later this year at a major international anthropology meeting in Vancouver, and possibly put out an edited book later. Otherwise, apart from delivering a Marxian critique of Burning Man’s political economy at a burner summit in Australia (available on my website), I’ve flirted with writing up some more academic analysis of Burning Man’s globalization and proliferation in the Asia-Pacific, but it’s currently being sidelined by other projects.

TNL: Alongside your academic pursuits, you are also an artist who has contributed to installation projects at Burning Man with strong connections to Taiwan. How did these installations go down on the Playa?

Ian: The 2013 Enlightenment piece, probably the first-ever Taiwanese or Chinese (mostly diaspora) piece, was a meditating man that burned beautifully along with 28 other international pieces.

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Credit: Courtesy of Ian Rowen
The Enlightenment piece team, Burning Man, August 2013.

The 2014 Taiwan Temple Market, a lovingly snarky mashup of two iconic features of the Taiwanese landscape, convenience stores and temples, featured our own original divination devices (and some materials kindly donated from the Songshan Cihui Temple) and delighted all kinds of people. A few Taiwanese strolled in in, having been drawn in by the red lanterns in front, and laughed and wept, touched that there was a Taiwan project at all.

The following year’s project, Foxcarn & the Betel Store, was a far darker project, which examined Taiwan, China, and the US’s roles in the mechanics of capitalist reproduction by refracting the relationship between Apple and Foxconn. Basically we built a sweatshop in the back and an Apple Store/betel nut beauty mashup in front. If people wanted any of our iSwag, they’d have to make it and suffer abuse in the factory and then not get paid enough to buy back what they just made for us. This project both pissed people off and made them laugh grimly, which was kind of the point.

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Credit: Courtesy of Ian Rowen
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Credit: Courtesy of Ian Rowen
Foxcarn & the Betel Store installation at Burning Man, August 2015.

TNL: You also have several other strings to your bow, including being a fellow at the World Economic Forum. How has the experience been so far?

Ian: The WEF is a sprawling scene, not confined to their most famous annual event in Davos. The WEF Global Future Councils is held annually in Dubai. It is pitched as “the world’s foremost brainstorming event”, in which a broad (but profoundly privileged, and therefore both insightful and blind) set of people come together to talk for two days about how to solve the world’s problems, or something like that. I don’t know if the world got any better, but I sure learned a lot.

TNL: To what extent might your work at Burning Man and the WEF be described as two sides of the same coin?

Ian: Burning Man and WEF seem to share a number of features, for better or worse. At the moment I see them as non-profit organizations who produce semi-carnivalesque events that facilitate trade in social (and other forms of) capital, that very jealously guard the prestige and patrimony of their trademarks, and that are reproduced through a whole lot of volunteer labor and goodwill. On the other hand, their declared values and modes of proliferation are rather different. I’m looking forward to making a more rigorous comparison based on further research sometime in the next few years.

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Credit: Courtesy of Ian Rowen
World Economic Forum Global Future Councils Annual Meeting, Dubai, November 2018.

TNL: Although you are no longer based in Taiwan, you often pop in for conferences and the like. What do you aim to do in your downtime on these visits?

Ian: Soak in hot springs, eat rechao and omakase, and socialize with old and new friends.

TNL: You've spent reasonable amounts of time in Taiwan, Hong Kong, China and now Singapore. What are your favorite aspects of each country?

Ian: Taiwan for tolerance, Hong Kong for skylines, China for scale and diversity, Singapore for Changi Airport and laksa.

TNL: Finally, let’s talk about your upcoming book “One China, Two Taiwans: The Geopolitics of Cross-Strait Tourism” and your chapter on the geopolitics of tourism in the wider region in a chapter entitled “Tourism as a Territorial Strategy in the South China Sea (Enterprises, Localities, People, and Policy in the South China Sea. Critical Studies of the Asia-Pacific. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). What drew you into writing on this topic?

Ian: It’s based on my PhD dissertation and revised to engage with a wider audience. Some of its key arguments have already been published in academic journals and are available on my website.

I chose to research Cross-Strait tourism when I started grad school in 2010 for several reasons: 1) I had lived in Taiwan for 4 years and had some sense of its political culture; 2) I had worked as a tour director in China in 2006 and had some sense of the industry; 3) I was skeptical about glib pundits and politicians who claimed that cross-strait tourism would magically bring about peace and reconciliation; 4) Few academics had yet thought to use geopolitics to think about tourism and vice versa.

Even if my skepticism was unfortunately warranted, the bright side is that the academic situation has changed since then, and there is now talk of a “geopolitical turn” in tourism studies of which my work has played a part in driving. Of course, China’s naked use of tourism as a geopolitical strategy – whether as an incentive or a threat to destinations like Taiwan, South Korea, Palau or elsewhere – has just become more and more obvious over the last few years, which made the previous fantasies about peace and love seem even more absurd than they were to begin with.

As for the South China Sea, sure, that’s a far bigger physical area than Taiwan, but there are far fewer people and far less tourism there. My research article on that was based largely on media reports and travel blogs of Chinese tourists, because at the moment, apart from some competing efforts from Vietnam and the Philippines, only Chinese nationals have been able to join these “patriotic tours.” I continue to monitor the situation and may write on it again if there are any major new developments.

“One China, Two Taiwans: The Geopolitics of Cross-Strait Tourism” is expected to be published in 2020 or so. In the meantime, interested readers can keep up with Dr. Rowen’s endeavors, both academic and artistic, at his personal website, Ianrowen.com.

Read Next: 5 Years Later, What Is the Legacy of Taiwan's Sunflower Movement?

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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