Feature

Meredith Huang entered the Legislative Yuan in March 2014 as an activist bearing two speakers and a microphone. Five years later, she's a NPP city councilor.

INTERVIEW: Meredith Huang's Journey From Sunflower Activism to Political Power

2019/04/04 , Opinion
Cat Thomas
Credit: Courtesy of Meredith Huang
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.

Ask yourself for a moment: You have helped plan an act of civil disobedience, but it is all disintegrating into chaos. What saves the day?

Meredith Huang (黃郁芬) is a former activist who played a pivotal role in Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Movement. She was part of the small group who first hatched the plan to storm the Legislative Yuan. The following morning, it was Huang, as the assigned media contact, who emerged to speak to gathered journalists. She’d barely woken up and hadn’t expected the cameras from the TV stations but quickly gathered herself and rolled with it. From that point onwards, she became an official media spokesperson for the movement.

In the years following the Sunflower Movement, Huang, now 29, has gone on to put her money where her mouth is, converting her activist roots into a string of political assistant roles. In November last year, she won a seat on Taipei City Council representing the people of Shilin-Beitou District for the New Power Party (NPP).

The News Lens sat down with Huang in her office at Taipei City Council on March 22 for an interview where we uncovered rather more than we had expected. By the end of the interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity, it became clear that this is a young politician to watch: This is the legacy of the Sunflower Movement in action.

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Credit: Courtesy of Meredith Huang
Meredith Huang waves from the campaign trail.

The News Lens: Let’s start with a little background information. Where did you grow up, what’s your family back ground and so on?

Meredith Huang: I grew up in Tainan after my family moved there from Taipei when I was five. My family is fairly usual for Taiwan; my parents, plus myself and my little sister. When I was younger my parents were avid watchers of political chat shows. They held different views on politics, so when the shows finished, they would often get into heated arguments with each other about politics. So much so that around the time I was in junior high, they made an agreement to stop watching these kind of shows at home.

TNL: Do you think that experience piqued your interest in politics at a young age?

Meredith: Of course. There were benefits and drawbacks. The drawback was all the fighting. However, not many of the parents of my peers would discuss the history of Taiwan democracy at home at the time. That was a benefit – because they had opposing views I heard both sides. Another was that I grew up understanding that despite conflicting views, we are all Taiwanese. This is democracy.

TNL: Let’s talk Sunflowers. You became interested in social activism while studying at Tsinghua University in Hsinchu. As you described in detail in your interview with Brian Hioe for the Daybreak Project, you slowly moved from helping out at various actions to becoming an active participant – eventually joining what would become the Black Island Youth Front. What were you doing in the days leading up to the storming of the Legislative Yuan on March 18?

Meredith: I had come up from Hsinchu on March 18 for a press conference we were holding regarding graduate worker’s rights in front of the Ministry of Education. At the time I had no idea what was about to happen. In the morning of March 18, some fellow members of The Black Island Youth said there would be a meeting and suggested that I attend.

It was only at the meeting that afternoon that we decided that we would try to occupy the Legislative Yuan – more specifically the General Assembly Chamber (GAC). No one had ever managed to do this before and we didn’t believe we had much hope of achieving it. However, in light of the events of the day before, we strongly felt we had to take action.

[Note: On March 18, Kuomintang (KMT) legislator Chang Ching-chung (張慶忠) had announced that the CCSTA had passed the 90 days allotted for review – despite no review having been held – and would be put to a final vote on without any amendments on March 21. The surprise 30-second announcement effectively removed any oversight from the CSSTA. At the time, the KMT held 65 of the 113 seats in the legislature, making it extremely likely it would pass and be in effect later that year.]

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Credit: AP / TPG
Meredith Huang (4th R) and other protesters inside Taiwan's Legislative Yuan during the 2014 Sunflower Movement.

TNL: How much did you know going in? Did you know the layout of the building for example?

Meredith: No, we didn’t know. We knew there was a glass door and once you got past that into the corridor there was a wooden door into the GAC itself. But that was about it. We didn’t know if the wooden door was kept locked. If it was locked, then we knew that we wouldn’t have a chance to successfully carry out of our aim of getting to the General Assembly Chamber.

Our group collectively had experience from other social movement actions, so we were able to anticipate some of the practicalities. We knew we needed to be clear about why we were taking this action and we knew we needed numbers.

We tried to plan for various eventualities, but with this kind of action is it hard to anticipate what might happen.

[Note: During the meeting the group identified the weakest spot of the barriers around the Legislative Yuan to launch the attempt from. Their demand was that a clause-by-clause review of the CSSTA be reinstated. According to her more detailed comments on the meeting in the Daybreak interview, it was Meredith herself who first proposed the idea of attempting to occupy the GAC, backed up by Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷).]

TNL: How did you actually enter? Did you climb over the barriers with the other protesters?

Meredith: Oh no [laughs], at that time I didn’t climb because I was carrying two speakers. They were heavy. And I’m short and the barrier was very high – it was impossible for me to carry two speakers and climb over the barrier.

So on that evening I just walked into the Legislative Yuan. How that came about was that we had called plenty of people to take part and at that time there were a lot of people climbing over the barriers to get into the grounds. So the door on Qingdao East road just had one guard on duty, because the other guards were busy dealing with the other people climbing over the barriers. So I went to the single guard left on that particular door. He was blocking the door with his body. I approached him and said: “I’m a citizen journalist. I need to record what is happening here.” I put it to him: “Do you want to be the person responsible for blocking this from being recorded for the people?” He was a little scared by that, so he just stepped slightly to the side and didn’t block the door. So there was a small space that I could slip through into the Legislative Yuan building.

TNL: Were you really a citizen journalist?

Meredith: No. [Laughs] I’m sorry that I lied, but I just couldn’t climb with the speakers!

TNL: Once you got inside on the first night, what was the atmosphere like and how did you feel personally?

Meredith: By the time I got in there, I discovered that the glass doors had already been partially smashed. It was still just a small gap, so it was quite dangerous to climb through. You don’t really have much time in that kind of a situation, you know the plan is to get in and get in fast, so you just go for it. There were lots and lots of police officers trying to catch people and drag them back out, so you are just focused on trying to evade them and get in.

TNL: Especially with your speakers…

Meredith: Yes, but that’s why I knew I had to get in. I had the speakers and I had to get them inside. Because the speakers were necessary. As I was trying to get through I actually got caught because a policeman grabbed the speakers, but I refused to let go. I think it was Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆) who pulled them off me.

So I managed to climb through the hole in the glass doors and it turned out the wooden door was unlocked, so I managed to get into the general chamber. If the wooden door had been locked, then we wouldn’t have been able to get beyond the area between the glass doors and the wooden doors. So that was pretty lucky too.

We were actually all pretty surprised that we’d succeeded in getting into the GAC. At that point there were perhaps just 20-30 people in there, but it was already getting pretty messy. A couple of people had started upturning tables. I was suddenly quite nervous. We’d got in as planned but you don’t want the public to think you’ve just broken in to vandalize the place. So at that moment it was fairly chaotic.

So there I was, watching this scene unfold, and I knew that I had to get the microphone into the right hands to calm things down and get us working together. So I looked around me and spotted a person that I knew was good at bringing people together – I knew him from earlier social activism occasions. At that time, I was considerably quieter and didn’t have the natural confidence to get on the microphone and try to rein the situation in.

By that point, the police looked like they were about to get in and start dragging us out. So I told my friend: “Look, what we need to do now is to try and find ways to keep the police out and get more of us in.” And so he got on the microphone and said: “Hey everyone, get over to the doors and prevent the police from gaining entry to kick us out!”

TNL: So in a way, if you hadn’t tricked the guard on the door and got in with the speakers and the microphone, everything could have been very different. Because if you didn’t have that equipment to try to get people together, perhaps the action wouldn’t have worked.

Meredith: Yes, that was the case. We had discussed this at the meeting that afternoon. When people are doing this kind of civil action, they find themselves in an unfamiliar situation and emotions are running high. It’s easy for things to become chaotic. So you definitely need someone with a microphone there. And we had decided that it needed to be someone clearheaded who had been at that meeting so that they were very clear on the aims of the action. Nobody else wanted to carry it, so it ended up being me.

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Credit: Courtesy of Meredith Huang
Students occupy the Legislative Yuan during the Sunflower Movement.

TNL: Were there ever times you felt dispirited, that the occupation wouldn’t work?

Meredith: The first days were quite panicked. We had to get organized quickly. There were all kinds of small details. On the first night, the clash was quite intense with the police trying to force their way in – actually, there are eight doors into the general assembly chamber – and I realized that Lin Fei-fan was directing people to guard the door ‘at the front’ or ‘at the back’. In front of who? It quickly became clear we had to number the doors. But it was all very ad hoc, so door number one became the door that happened to be in front of us two at that moment and so on, rather than being the main entrance for example. So, the police kept on switching the doors that they were trying to get through and it did seem that at any moment on that first night that we might get kicked out.

[Note: On that night the water and electricity supply to the Legislative Yuan was cut off and an order was issued by then-Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) to send riot police in to evict the protesters although it wasn’t enforced. On March 20, the then-Speaker of the Legislative Yuan, Wang Jin-pyng (王金平), promised that he would not send police in to forcibly evict the protesters].

Of course, up until Wang Jin-pyng told the public that he wouldn’t allow the police to kick us out, and even following the assurance we wouldn’t be forcibly evicted, to put it bluntly, no we weren’t sure [it would work]. We weren’t even sure we could take Wang Jin-pyng’s assurance at face value, because at the time there was a political struggle between Ma and Wang which had split the KMT into two factions, and so it was still possible that Ma could force through the area being cleared.

So after the movement began, what actually happened was what not what we had predicted at all, although we’d successfully occupied the GAC and they were way more people than we had expected [around 300 protesters made it in the first night], still we didn’t think that the numbers necessarily meant that we would succeed. We were never that confident.

From previous social movements, we knew that having a lot of people was no guarantee of success, and the KMT has often been willing to shrug off a lot of people protesting; but at the same time you’d feel conflicted because you could observe that this movement is different, there are a lot more people this time, in fact everything is different. So, in that way, maybe you can think, well, we might succeed this time.

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Credit: CNA
Meredith Huang (R) and Dennis Wei (魏揚), then graduate students at National Tsing Hua University, speak about the Sunflower Movement at a press conference in Washington, DC on Apr. 10, 2014.

TNL: How did you feel personally when it was decided to withdraw?

Meredith: I think that withdrawing at the time was a necessary decision. I was actually in the U.S. at the time [touring at the behest of the Formosan Association for Public Affairs to explain to interested parties what was happening and why we were taking the action.] I’d left on April 7 and the withdrawal was on April 10.

At that time, I understood that the pressure within the movement itself had built up. There were many pressures in different forms, but the main pressure was just maintaining the occupation of the space. The reason why it had got so far was the strength of the mobilization in the first place, and the strong public reaction that led up to it. We had reached a point where with the media coverage we had, depending on how the occupation ended, it was possible that it might be viewed as a failure. The media wouldn’t really care if we achieved our aims. If there was a sudden drop in numbers, for example, the media would report on this as being a failure

As we discussed in the last week, it was very difficult for the movement to be described as successful because it had already gone through the March 24 attempted storming of the Executive Yuan and half a million people taking to the streets on March 30 – and yet it was clear that the KMT had no intention of backing down.

So, after 500,000 people had taken to the streets in support of the movement, the pressure on the participants in the GAC was very heavy. With that number of people taking to the streets it was very hard to imagine any larger activity happening for the movement. For a social movement participant, the crux is if you can’t think of a bigger activity, what then? Also, you can’t really say that aloud, for fear of discouraging people from coming to the protest site. So if people weren’t coming to the occupation site any longer, there’s the risk that it would be reported on as a failed movement by the media, and this was something to be avoided.

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Credit: tenz1225 / Flickr
Protesters take to the Taipei streets during the Sunflower Movement on March 30, 2014.

TNL: In a talk given by Stephane Corcuff at Academia Sinica in July 2017, he described the Sunflower movement as the only successful Occupy movement worldwide to date, in that the protesters in Taiwan forced the government to back down.

Meredith: What I would say is that you have to look at the demands. While the government did back down somewhat, the withdrawal was bound to happen anyway. Even maintaining [the agreement] up to April 10 was already very difficult.

The movement had become well-known very quickly and also the nine-in-one elections were also coming up in late 2014, so you can see that the KMT’s actions became limited as a result. If it had not been for the fact that there were upcoming elections, the KMT might not have bothered with us.

If you look at the demands, one was to repeal the CSSTA – which hasn’t actually happened, it’s still just stuck there in the legislature. The other was to pass a cross-Strait agreement oversight bill, but that has also still not been passed.

So, in this way, I would say that the Sunflower movement did not achieve its concrete demands. It was influential, but if you look at it from the standpoint of the demands, these were not met. Rather than saying the government backed down, it might be fairer to say that we managed to stop the government at a point it was rushing forward. So we didn’t achieve our aims, per se. But we did manage to force the CSSTA to a standstill.

TNL: How were your family about you being involved so heavily in the occupation? Were they supportive?

Meredith: They weren’t unsupportive. I was kind of an independent kid at so I was doing a lot of things I wouldn’t necessarily mention to my parents. I hadn’t mentioned this, so the first they knew of my involvement was when they saw me on TV that first morning. They sent me a message saying I needed to be careful about my personal safety which I only saw a day later… the connection in there was bad, and you are so busy you don’t have time to be looking at your phone. I feel quite sorry for putting my parents through that. I was caught up in what was happening, and it hadn’t occurred to me that I should let them know first, so they found out when they saw me on TV.

I was quite moved by my father’s reaction though. Early in the movement, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) put out a call for their members to support the action and even though he is a signed-up member of the KMT, which doesn’t rule out unification [with China], he messaged me to say he’d listened to the DPP’s statement and in this case he agreed with the DPP and supported me staying. I was very moved, I couldn’t have imagined he would say that. But my poor mom. She’d brought plane tickets for to visit Japan at the time and I feel quite sorry that my mom couldn’t enjoy her holiday in Japan because she was keeping up on the news from Taiwan on TV to check I was still okay. Actually she came straight from the airport with all her luggage to join the demonstration outside the Legislative Yuan on March 30.

TNL: In the aftermath of the Occupation you then threw yourself into a string of government-related roles, including working as a legislative assistant for Wellington Koo (顧立雄) and assisting the Party Assets Investigation Committee, before eventually deciding to run for a seat on Taipei City Council (Shilin-Beitou District). In an interview with New Bloom in the run up to the election last year, you expressed the opinion that it is vital to have people working within the system to address the concerns of those outside it – as you had been yourself as an activist. You’ve been in the role for around three months now. Do you find that you are able to provide that bridge in the way you had hoped for?

Meredith: I believe so, yes. In the three months before the session started, what I’ve been doing is going and meeting up with NGOs and talking to them about policy, and although there were several other young city councilors elected this time, the NGOs seem surprised that I was doing this. One of the reasons that I ran for election was to create channels of communications between those inside the system and those outside the system. This was also a key factor when I chose my campaign team. For example, my assistant wrote her master’s thesis on local government and NGOs so she has a lot of contacts in NGOs and ideas on how they can work together with government.

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Credit: Courtesy of Meredith Huang
Meredith Huang (C) meets with teachers, NGOs and labor unions to discuss labor rights on Apr. 3, 2019.

TNL: Your party, the NPP, rose up from the Sunflower Movement and has enjoyed some success in legislative and local elections. What do you believe to be the key concerns/positions of your party right now?

Meredith: Labor rights; gender equality and marriage equality; to create a more democratic and equal society; and lowering the voting age to 18 [current laws allow citizens 18 and over to vote in referendums; for all other votes, the minimum age is 20].

TNL: Speaking of gender equality, earlier this year the Directorate General of Budgeting Accounting and Statistics calculated that, based on figures from 2017, Taiwan ranks first in Asia and eighth worldwide in terms of gender equality, largely due to female participation in politics. In the local elections last November, Taiwan elected women to head seven of its 22 counties and municipalities, and to fill 33.8 percent of city and county council seats. What are your personal aspirations? Do you envisage yourself moving on to serve in the legislature?

Meredith: Yes. I don’t have a timeline for it but it’s a long-term goal. The role I’d really like is to be the Minister of Culture, but I guess I might have to make it into the legislature first! That’s one of my goals.

As regards to those specific statistics, I’m not familiar with them, but it is definitely true that right now we have the highest female representation levels in the Legislative Yuan that we’ve ever had.

However, from my time as Wellington Koo’s assistant in the Legislative Yuan, I learnt that sometimes the statistics that you see don’t correspond to the reality. Even though the female legislators are there, their ability to fully participate in the day-to-day politics has some limitations. And why is this so? Something that is quite visible is committee meetings – which are livestreamed and which I witnessed in person – you have to look at how much female legislator’s opinions are listened to or are given weight. You need to examine the actual dynamics of how this is playing out. Sometimes, these legislators won’t speak at these meetings, or if their opinions are stated, they are kind of passed over or disregarded.

So, although on paper there are many women in the legislature, you also need to resolve these issues facing women so that their voices are properly heard within the legislature. The situation might actually become tougher in a way, because while it looks like on the surface that things are great, you have to look at the dynamics. Are the female legislators truly being listened to, and are they resolving issues facing women?

This is often a topic of discussion within the NPP. Actually, of the NPP city councilors that were elected last November, there are actually more women than men. However, if you look at the central committee of the NPP, there are more men than women.

In looking at female participation in politics in Taiwan, you have to take a much more detailed look at the matter, because Taiwan is still a society in which men are encouraged to speak up, be assertive and so forth and women are expected to be more passive. Women are still expected to accommodate other people – to listen rather than speak – rather than being the ones giving the push for action.

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Credit: Courtesy of Meredith Huang
Meredith Huang (2nd R) at an event seated next to Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲, 2nd L).

TNL: Would you say that, when you consider your role on the city council, this is something that is a priority for you? Are you thinking about how you can improve the situation?

Meredith: Yes of course! Hang on a second, where was the stuff I was looking at before you arrived? [Meredith gets up and crosses the room and picks up a veritable stack of bound files.] These are the records of the last four years of the Taipei City Governments committee to promote women’s rights. So, I’m currently looking through these to understand what proposals were substantively followed up on and realized. So, yes. It’s one of my focuses.

TNL: Taiwan is often described in the international media as a beacon of democracy in Asia. Would you agree with that assessment?

Meredith: I guess I agree with that. I think that things in Korea are also done very well, in particular by city governments such as Seoul and so forth. Although Taiwan may be a little better in term so of gender equality and so on – compared to Japan as well.

However, it’s not perfect. There are still limitations and improvements that can be made.

TNL: Your new role must keep you very busy. What do you enjoy doing in your down time?

Meredith: I watch television dramas, often international ones from America, Japan or Korea.

TNL: Have you heard about International Bridge Club (國際橋牌社) [an upcoming Netflix original political drama about Taiwan’s steps to democracy in the 1990s]?

Meredith: Oh yes! I know the one you’re talking about! I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be the first political drama about Taiwan. I’m hoping that this will become a trend in Taiwan, to have dramas about our political system. Because dramas are a great way to reach people who might not care about politics but love dramas.

Hopefully these people then begin to know more about the stories behind Taiwan’s politics, understand the way politics actually work – assuming that the dramas are accurate in their representation, of course. And if you understand that, perhaps you will know what [political] action you should take in your real life.

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Credit: Courtesy of Meredith Huang
Meredith Huang campaigning in Taipei.

TNL: Finally, you’ve successfully converted your role from an activist to a city councilor. Do you have any words of advice for young Taiwanese reading this who are interested in stepping up to the plate and getting involved in politics?

Meredith: There are many ways to get involved. For example, you could become an elected representative or an assistant to an elected representative. If you decide to do that, it is really important to keep an open mind, and perhaps even more important to embrace diversity. Taiwan has a diversity of opinions. You need to accept that a significant number of people might have different opinions from your own. When people start talking about public affairs and issues, it’s easy to become polarized. Most issues have grey areas; there’s not an absolute good or bad.

At the same time, when you are a member of a political party, there are times where you may have to take a strong position on an issue. That shouldn’t stop you from listening. There will be people that have different opinions from you and that is how democracy works. You need to find a middle ground that you can work from together. We’re all Taiwanese, we need to work together.

Special thanks to Brian Hioe of New Bloom for assisting with interpretation in this interview.

Read Next: INTERVIEW: Tobie Openshaw on Taiwan's Sunflowers, Indigenous Rights & Democracy

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)


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