It has been five years since the 2014 Sunflower Movement occurred in Taiwan. In the discourse of social movement, the Sunflower Movement’s effect on domestic politics and society are broadly seen. However, there is less discussion on its international effect.

The Sunflower Movement’s international effect should be discussed as it provides a new perspective to look at Taiwan’s vibrant social power and Taiwan’s diplomacy practices. Though limited framework analyzing the Sunflower Movement’s international effect in social movement theory, this article aims to contextualize the Sunflower Movement’s international effect in public diplomacy practices in order to define a new structure of relations between Taiwan’s society and its diplomacy.

Taiwan’s social movement

To look at the Sunflower Movement’s international effect, this analytical framework is established from the historical context of Taiwan’s social movement and linked to public diplomacy practices.

Looking into the historical context, it is not hard to find the relations between Taiwan’s social movements, democratization and formation of identity, which can be put into Figure 1 (below):

Figure 1: The relation between Taiwan’s social movements, democratization and formation of identity

From this figure, it signifies that both the process of democratization and formation of identity were pushed to realization through social movements. Moreover, the mutual influence between formation of identity and democratization also leads to social movements. While they have kept on influencing each other, it has laid a foundation for the international effect of social movements, namely projecting the image of Taiwan and influencing the foreign public that Taiwan wants to be Taiwanese and a democratic country. To put it differently, the international effect of social movements does not derive from the movement itself but from what is behind the movement and what the movement triggers – the democratization and the formation of identity.

It is assured that Taiwan’s social movements have effects on the society and politics which therefore mobilize the process of democratization and formation of identity. However, how have these prospering actions been seen in the world’s eyes?

Bridging with discourse of public diplomacy

Practicing public diplomacy is to interact with the foreign public with approaching the information. The U.S., for instance, is consistent in utilizing soft power resources – attracting and projecting the image of a country’s culture and political values as well as influencing foreign countries with its foreign policy. In U.S. cultural diplomacy during the Cold War, U.S. writers, artists and scholars both in private and public began to impress Russian professionals with their freedom of speech. Through the U.S. promoting literature books exchanges or English language classes to Russians who wished to talk about freedom, it was asserted to be successful for the U.S. gaining some allies in the Russian society because the understanding was founded for possible communication. This reveals that public diplomacy effectively performs soft power when a clear message is delivered to a specific recipient.

Though public diplomacy can be seen mostly from U.S. experiences during and after the Cold War, it induces a trend in East Asia. The fact that East Asian countries were competitively learning and developing soft power and public diplomacy is related to unstable regional conditions. While East Asian countries were confronted with the emerging boosting economy, it raised the awareness for these countries that building good relations should create better long-term prospects.

Taiwan, in this region, is also affected and drawn in by this public diplomacy trend.


Credit: Reuters / TPG

Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮).

However, Taiwan engages with the concept of soft power more from practitioners than academic scholars due to a lack of hard power – military, international recognition and diplomatic allies. While Joseph Nye, who introduced the term “soft power” in the late 1980s, thinks that soft power is a relative concept to hard power, Taiwan exerts soft power as a substitute to hard power. Justifying soft power resources, Taiwan emphasizes its use of traditional Chinese characters and promoting indigenous culture. Taiwan highlights its democratic values to become a resource of soft power, but it has not acquired expected results of gaining more attention due to unstable cross-Strait relations.

Though its limited international legitimacy and small number of diplomatic allies make Taiwan’s foreign policy difficult, Taiwan engages in many global activities on human rights, medicine and trade through non-governmental organizations (NGOs). To Taiwan, the concept of soft power has not developed as much as the practices of public diplomacy. Moreover, practicing public diplomacy has become an indispensable and irreplaceable tool in Taiwan’s diplomacy toolbox due to its inferior military power, its lack of international legitimacy, Beijing’s deterrence policies towards Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, and the overall instability of cross-Strait relations.

It seems that Taiwan practice of public diplomacy is not believed to be effective because Taiwan has not utilized its soft power resources well and has found stuck in comparisons against China. Despite its limited effectiveness, practicing public diplomacy is still imperative to Taiwan for making up its limited international space. With China’s oppression, it is critical for Taiwan to enhance the visibility of its quality soft power resources.

Herein, it comes to the bridging point of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Taiwan’s public diplomacy. As the Sunflower Movement pushed for the formation of identity and democratization, it has projected this information and image to the world.

Foreign media releases have supported this viewpoint. The BBC news report, “Will the Sunflower Movement Change Taiwan?” released on April 9, 2015, one year after the Sunflower Movement, is a descriptive report on the follow-up development and effect of the movement. The background and protest purpose were clearly stated, but the report pays the most attention to describing Taiwan’s identity issue.

Since the Sunflower Movement urges the formation of Taiwan’s identity, this effect also becomes a major topic in the BBC report. It stresses the importance of recognizing Taiwan’s identity, which shows that the message of Taiwanese wishing to be Taiwan is clearly delivered. Moreover, this identity topic is further enunciated from the perspective of how Taiwanese see relations with China.

This shows that Taiwan has been in strong economic interactions with China, which would be an underlying variable to the formation of identity. Nevertheless, it ends with a statistical data of Taiwanese tendency to the identity of being Taiwanese. In this news report, it is evident that the image of Taiwan is established to be the wish of Taiwanese to be Taiwanese.

Besides coverage by international media, Taiwan’s effort of projecting its image and information to foreign audience can be seen on the internet. Typing in “Sunflower Movement” on Google News produces many results from New Bloom, a Taiwanese online magazine established after the Sunflower Movement devoted to analyses Taiwan’s issues from a left-independence perspective. New Bloom argues that Taiwan’s local problems should be approached from an international context. Over the last five years, it has provided news on local issues from elections and politics to LGBTQ and human rights issues as it aims to connect Taiwan to the world, and the world to Taiwan.


Credit: AP / TPG

Students occupy the Legislative Yuan on Mar. 28, 2014.

Sunflower Movement’s international effect after 5 years

Applying the practice of public diplomacy to the international effect of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement reveals the effectiveness of delivering Taiwan’s image to the foreign public. The prospering ecology of connecting Taiwan to the world and Taiwan’s social awareness to diplomacy are the rewarding consequences.

However, this does not mean that Taiwan should utilize the same approach to perform public diplomacy again. The Sunflower Movement is unique from other social movements because, judging from the historical development of Taiwan’s social movements, different-goaled movements culminate in the Sunflower Movement and civil society has already been cultivating methods to participate in politics. Moreover, Taiwan’s international status has been a concern since the 1980s, and Taiwanese people hope to improve this. With many NGOs’ practical interactions with foreign organizations and the government’s designed exchange programs, changing Taiwan’s international status is not a secret but a common issue to all Taiwanese citizens.

Although the Sunflower Movement showed a well-orchestrated public diplomacy, Taiwan’s public diplomacy still needs further development. In public diplomacy, it is asserted that producing the best impact is to direct its impact on both foreign governments and foreign populations. Therefore, if the Sunflower Movement has impacted the foreign public, it is vital that Taiwan’s government strategize foreign policy to influence foreign audiences. By doing so, the foreign society would also form an influence on their own government, which would elevate the performance of Taiwan’s public diplomacy and would arguably have a positive effect on Taiwan’s international recognition.

On Jan. 3, 2019, one day after Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed his willingness to use force to assert sovereignty over Taiwan, the European Union announced it would continue developing relations with Taiwan and supporting shared values between Taiwan and European democracies. Though it is yet to be defined whether this is a consequence of public diplomacy, it is apparent that, with such an announcement, the EU supports Taiwan’s democratic values. In the practice of public diplomacy, it is essential to project images and information of a country’s beliefs, norms and values to foreign audiences. Therefore, this once again proves the importance of Taiwan’s public diplomacy. Taiwan’s civil society has arguably been more vital and alert of its international status after the Sunflower Movement. Its effect on the international level should not be ignored.

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

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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