The Sunflower Movement and the Taiwanese National Identity: Building an Anti-Sinoist Civic Nationalism

Anson Au

Anti-Sinoism in Taiwan has penetrated the state, crystallizing into an ethnic conflict that has escalated to include induced immigration, and pressured emigration. Contemporary constructions of what it means to be Taiwanese both echo anti-Sinoist themes from historical social movements, and ultimately infuse civic nationalism with anti-Sinoism.

Photo CC BY 2.0 by Thomas Tsai

In March and April 2014, hundreds of thousands of young Taiwanese stormed the streets and occupied the Legislative Yuan (the Taiwanese legislature) in protest against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) that proposed to widen the range of industries open to potential investment and to liberalize trade between the Taiwanese and mainland Chinese states. The mobilization, widely known as the Sunflower Movement, comes as the largest mobilization in a string of social movements in Taiwan with a surging frequency and growing numbers. The majority of these protests – such as the 228 Hand-in-Hand Rally in 2004, the 1025 Demonstration in 2008, the Wild Strawberries Movement in 2008, and the 517 Protest in 2009 – are defined by a specific opposition to political and economic ties with China.

This theme is consistent with public opinion polls in Taiwan that indicate changes in collective attitudes, becoming increasingly supportive of Taiwanese independence rather than unification, and reflecting the endorsement of a distinct Taiwanese identity and a burgeoning anti-Sinoism.[1] Anti-Sinoism in Taiwan has penetrated the state, crystallizing into an ethnic conflict that has escalated to include induced immigration, and pressured emigration. Discriminatory policies have targeted mainland Chinese, discouraging their residence in Taiwan with systematic unfair treatment in permanent residence rights, voting rights, and employment rights. Mainland Chinese spouses living in Taiwan, for instance, are required to live in Taiwan for six years before qualifying for permanent residence, otherwise four years for all other nations.[2]

Anti-Sinoism in Taiwan has penetrated the state, crystallizing into an ethnic conflict that has escalated to include induced immigration, and pressured emigration.

Implicated is the need to navigate the processes involved in the development of anti-Sinoism in Taiwan, and how anti-Sinoism remains an integral part of the Taiwanese national identity, which retains its civic nature. To this end, this article adopts two interrelated foci: first, I briefly illuminate how anti-Sinoism in contemporary Taiwanese protests derives from a history of anti-Sinoism in Taiwanese politics and social movements, supporting the assertion that anti-Sinoism is not only not new, but actually a part of the Taiwanese national identity. Second, using semi-structured interviews with Taiwanese youth and students, I illuminate how the Sunflower movement operates as a vehicle by which contemporary constructions of what it means to be Taiwanese both echo anti-Sinoist themes from historical social movements, and ultimately infuse civic nationalism with anti-Sinoism.

The Taiwanese Organic National Identity: Beginnings of Anti-Sinoism

The KMT and the DPP are defined by a history of conflict that extends beyond conventional disagreements on national policies: the KMT favours closer political and economic ties with mainland China, whereas the DPP, prompted by an ideological belief in the independence of Taiwan, struggles for liberation from China’s “one country, two systems” policy. In Taiwan the antagonism between the KMT and the DPP demonstrate a party division in which bottom-up relations precede top-down relations: that is, rather than elites manipulating the masses by stirring racial discrimination, anti-Sinoist popular opinions in Taiwan grew in the absence of intervening elites, and even created new parties (i.e. the DPP) that advanced and championed anti-Sinoism.

The organic nationalism of a Taiwanese national identity first began with resinicization, a set of policies inflicted by the KMT followers during Chiang Kai-Shek’s rule, under which the Taiwanese suffered systematic discrimination and marginalization. They increasingly had their jobs ceded to mainlander elites, among other forms of cultural appropriations that supplanted characteristics of the Taiwanese identity with Chinese culture: Mandarin and other Chinese dialects became national languages in education, television, and filmography, non-Mandarin speakers were stigmatized, buildings were reconstructed with Chinese architectural styles[3], and local cultural expressions were punished.[4]

More than sharing the existence of a mainland Chinese enemy not yet defeated, the Taiwanese share a history of oppression and extensive residence in Taiwan. Their solidarity in frustration from oppression infused into a civic nationalism, even though it was framed as an ethnic conflict. The liberal boundaries of this civic identity thus successfully unify the Taiwanese: the public’s engagement in ethnic conflict is motivated by the desire to preserve the “purity” of their organic people. To this end, they not only conceptualize “foreigners” as “others”, but also attempt to expunge persons that fall within this category – in the Taiwanese case, these were the mainlanders. Organic conceptions of a national community resonated strongly with the Taiwanese, motivated by a history of oppression to protect their sense of belonging. Resinicization had instilled in the Taiwanese national identity a national suffering that united its people, disparate in their ethnicities, but all of them oppressed, frustrated residents of Taiwan.

The popular resistance that followed also protested Chiang’s coercion on ideological grounds – that the Taiwanese were truly a distinct identity. Cultural countertrends emerged that sought to distinguish the Taiwanese identity. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, these countertrends took shape across the spheres of literature, language, education, and politics in a widespread movement referred to as Taiwanization or the Taiwanese localization movement (bentuhua). The popularity of these countertrends ultimately gave rise to the dangwai (“outside the party”) movement – the first elites or parties fronting anti-Sinoism. Winning unprecedented numbers of elections, the dangwai parties threatened the KMT’s rule, eventually creating the major political party Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 1986, currently the official opposition.

The mainlander-Taiwanese ethnic conflict thus began in a bottom-up process, where anti-Sinoism first burgeoned from public opinion and whose extremist stances were developed independent of political party influence, and political parties were a product of and means to further such extremist sentiments. Bottom-up nationalism initiated a top-down nationalism that it extracted support from, embodied in elite challenges mounted against the Chinese state and its mainlander minority in Taiwan on behalf of the people. Consequently, ties are strengthened between the public and these elites, further demarcating “us” (Taiwanese) from “them” (foreign mainlanders).

Contemporary Constructions of Anti-Sinoism

The CSSTA and the Sunflower Movement

The Sunflower movement demonstrates the continuity of the symbiotic link between the elite DPP and the anti-Sinoist public, and its mutual legitimation. Over the past few decades, social movements have been opportunities to strengthen the solidarity between the people and the DPP, retaining the party’s function as an instrument of the people. Since the DPP’s conception in the 1980s, over than 3,000 demonstrations and public speeches took place, either directly organized by the DPP or other dangwai parties[5], as common strategies to elicit support for the DPP.

In March 2016, the DPP first “opted for an article-by-article review of CSSTA rather than an outright rejection… once the congress was occupied, the DPP decided to back the students’ demand to scrap the current CSSTA version”.[6] Thus, the Sunflower movement extracted legitimation from the DPP’s endorsement in their shared opposition against the KMT. For instance, DPP lawmakers and chairpersons physically joined students in the sit-in occupation of the Legislative Yuan (the national legislature) on March 18-19. On March 21, the DPP urged support for the students nation-wide and warned the KMT government against using coercion, priming a critical, public eye on the police, and stimulating fevered support for the students when police violence did descend with baton beatings, water cannons, and barbed-wire barriers.[7] After the movement, 72% of DPP members voted for government responsibility for reparations of movement damages, while 81% of KMT voted for student responsibility for reparations.[8]

By offering legitimation for the student protesters, the DPP also garnered legitimation and support in their attempts to escalate ethnic conflict by discursively framing their actions as “for the people”. Dedicating acts to the people “legitimates almost all modern states – and is so seen as unreservedly and universally as a good and moral collectivity”16. In doing so, Taiwan’s colonial past was brought to the fore, evoking parallels with the Chinese Communists. What it meant to be Taiwanese soon crystallized as being a native resident of the nation, and the alien “other” became the mainland Chinese, associated with colonizing, oppressive Communists whose imperialism continues. That the DPP are an extension of the anti-Sinoist Taiwanese public transforms the meanings underlying the CSSTA, going beyond trade to represent a cultural conflict between the Taiwanese and the mainlanders and consolidating the distinction between “us” and “them”.

Indeed, the Sunflower movement reveals that contemporary constructions of anti-Sinoism are preoccupied by two interrelated tendencies: first, issues of contention are politicized, and second, at the same time, constructions of anti-Sinoism are heavily steeped in constructions of national identity. Ultimately, both produce contemporary forms of anti-Sinoism that align with the content of the anti-Sinoism borne of the Taiwanese organic national identity during the DPP’s historic rise.

Although the Sunflower movement was fundamentally organized around a trade agreement, the CSSTA’s significance was interpreted to be political, not economic.

Although the Sunflower movement was fundamentally organized around a trade agreement, the CSSTA’s significance was interpreted to be political, not economic. Criticisms of the CSSTA drew heavily on how it was structured, representing “black box politics” (opaque decision-making), and less on its actual content. Contrary to the agreement’s actual economic impact, the people responded to it as a threat to Taiwanese sovereignty. According to Ng [9], the Taiwanese public was offended “not so much what is in the agreement as the way their government has tried to pull a fast one on them”, stemming from a distrust of President Ma, and a “suspicion of a unification-obsessed China, [as] many Taiwanese view… [the] CSSTA as baby steps in Beijing’s quiet, carefully planned annexation of the renegade island.”

At the same time, the Sunflower movement became a vehicle for anti-Sinoism to mobilize, which became bound up in conceptions of national identity. Jamie, a Taiwanese student, explained the motivations for the protests as: “for every little thing, we try to do protest and try to remind the government that we want our own identity.” Thus, contemporary forms of anti-Sinoism have become ensconced in constructions of national identity, closely resembling the organic national identity in Taiwan constructed by the DPP’s ascension. At the same time, potential threats to this national identity reaffirmed the politicization tendency, as political incentives and consequences were prioritized above economic ones:

“I don’t feel like [the protests are going to] change our economy dependence. It’s just that I feel the trade would make… more people work for the Chinese people, and… I don’t think, if I was in that situation, I would want [to] work with Chinese or under them.” – Jamie

“I feel that China has more power these days after they’ve opened up their economy. In a way, I feel that the Taiwanese feel more threatened by this… politically.” – Andreas

Economic ramifications of the CSSTA were framed as auxiliary, whereby they were not only secondary, but antecedent to political ones; that is, economic consequences were only important insofar as they influenced political consequences. As my colleagues’ responses reveal, their anti-Sinoist attitudes – aversion to subservience to mainlanders and a fear of their influence on Taiwanese affairs – were motivated and justified by political disagreements.

The consequences of an increasingly politicized struggle, however, risk further organizing the Taiwanese ethnic conflict with an “unstable, divided, repressive regime, territorial population concentration, extensive political organization, and support from foreign sympathizers.”[10] Indeed, the DPP’s public alignment with and endorsement of the Sunflower movement permitted access to the legitimacy of international support being offered for the protesters, which culminated in a clash of rival claims to political sovereignty. As a result, the KMT government became embroiled in the anti-Sinoist discussion in the Sunflower movement, intensifying the elite division between the KMT and the DPP. According to Andreas, she “wasn’t aware enough to make a decision on if [she] was more towards what [the Sunflower movement protesters] were saying versus what the government was saying.” Distrust in the KMT government visibly mitigated its perception as a mediator, forcing the KMT into the ideological conflict behind anti-Sinoism or “the mobilization of values, norms, and rituals.”[11]

Implicated was a shift toward value-rationality as the motivation for social actions, where individual acts become important for their own sakes. Taiwanese students demonstrate what Smucker [12] describes as prefigurative political spaces in the Occupy movement, confusing “process, tactics, and self-expression with political content” and “[celebrating] ‘the struggle for the sake of struggle’”. When asked about personal feelings about the Sunflower protest, Jamie replied:

“I think [protesting is] a way to express what we want, because if you don’t do it, then the government or leader won’t know about it… people just want to show they don’t want us to be taken by others, and we want to keep our own identity – like people are just trying to extract them and letting presidents and politicians know that we have to keep our own identity.”

Moreover, announcements from the Sunflower movement, disseminated on their Facebook page, proffered strategic outlooks that ultimately also became conflated with struggling its own sake. On April 11, 2014, they announced:

“[This occupation has awakened our strategic vision, raised the Taiwanese voice to Chinese society, and allowed the world to see Taiwan… In this historic scene, let us proudly claim: this occupation demonstrated the ‘democratic rights’ of the constitution, turning ideals into reality, and our generation of Taiwanese experienced all of this. We tried to dismantle the Communist infrastructure, the [Chinese] anti-colony world power’s domination of Taiwan, tried our best to break from the empire’s oppression, the underhanded dealings among those in power.]” [13]

The shift to value-rationality as the motivation for protest speaks to how anti-Sinoism remains an integral part of the Taiwanese national identity, which retains its civic nature. Most significantly, both Sunflower movement protester and layperson perspectives converge on recanting explicit and implicit themes that were common to the discourse of anti-Sinoist content within the Taiwanese organic national identity borne of the DPP’s historic rise: the acceptance of an “us” versus “them” struggle along ideological lines, wherein the former consists of a unified conception of an organic Taiwanese identity and the latter of mainlanders and the government, producing a general distrust that extends even to the state; the need to struggle for and defend the Taiwanese national identity through public demonstrations and protests, at the same time demonstrating the identity’s civic nature and anti-Sinoism’s politicized motivations; and ultimately, the sedimentation of anti-Sinoism in constructions of a contemporary Taiwanese national identity itself.

An Anti-Sinoist Civic Nationalism

Participants’ constructions of Taiwanese national identity consistently described a civic nationalism enmeshed with anti-Sinoist sentiments. Inquiries about a Taiwanese identity inspired recourse to a political identity based on shared citizenship [14] that was never parted from a sense of threat from the Chinese state. These themes ran throughout participant responses when asked to reflect on the growing frequency of protests over the past few years. I did not identify specific protests, neither did I suggest or mention they were at all connected to the Taiwanese national identity. Still, participants made the connection. For Jamie, she began by acknowledging the uniqueness of the Taiwanese struggle:

“it’s a small country, and we really want people to recognize us, and we really want to keep our unique national identity, so that’s why I think we don’t want anything to affect our identity.”

She then proceeded to refer to the Taiwanese national identity, but did not define it by any quality, save for the criterion of being distinguished from a Chinese identity:

“And a lot of people don’t really understand it, so people are scared that one day we will lose our identity, or just become part of China … [We want to] be able to live on our own, because we don’t have strong economy background. We’re very weak, we don’t have strong military, we don’t have strong national background, because we depend a lot on US and China a lot, so that’s why for every little thing we try to do protest and try to like remind the government that we want our own identity, and that’s just the way most people joining protest.”

Andreas described the surge in protests in terms of an “awakening” in public consciousness about their national identity, surmising that “[it] just ultimately proves that it’s more liberating in Taiwan. It used to be more conservative. Like even the youth, even the youth are standing up, which is a good change, as long as it’s not violent.” In her accounts of this heightened sense of national identity among the Taiwanese, she explicitly attributed its origins to a perceived sense of threat from China’s growth: “… from China being more opened up, I would say. I feel that China has more power these days after they’ve opened up their economy. In a way, I feel that the Taiwanese feel more threatened by this.”

Consistent across their responses, the Taiwanese national identity was empowered by popular resistance against China, expressed through protests. Both had conceded an insurmountable dichotomy between the two identities. Where one heightens, the other necessarily weakens. The extent to which political resistance against Chinese interests succeeded (i.e. the CSSTA) and the magnitude of anti-Sinoist sentiments expressed became measures of how strong the Taiwanese national identity grew. That the Taiwanese identity ultimately depended on anti-Sinoism as its crux ultimately maintained the liberal boundaries of a civic nationalism.

When participants were asked to define what it meant to be Taiwanese, and how this differed from being Chinese, they quickly began by acknowledging an irrefutable distinction between the two, despite shaky attempts to support this distinction later.

When participants were asked to define what it meant to be Taiwanese, and how this differed from being Chinese, they quickly began by acknowledging an irrefutable distinction between the two, despite shaky attempts to support this distinction later. Jamie replied: the Taiwanese were “more open-minded, and culture-wise… this is hard… I don’t know. For language, there are so many in China, right? There’s like many different parts… but I feel that for Chinese, they’re really different, like even North Chinese and southern Chinese are pretty different. I think Taiwanese are more… uniform… in terms of… I really don’t know how to describe the difference.” Her difficulties in articulating what it meant to be Taiwanese in cultural terms could be explained by the way in which the question was asked: it solicited a definition that distinguished itself from the Chinese.

Being Taiwanese also remained independent of ethnicity, for, according to Andreas, “[they’re] multicultural, [with] the Hakka, the native Taiwanese, and the Chinese people who immigrated there.” To be Taiwanese, moreover, meant to “be passionate… and warm towards the community.” This definition of Taiwanese also does not support an ethnic or cultural distinction from the Chinese.

But that the inability to describe substantive differences in culture and ethnicity did not diminish their beliefs in a distinct Taiwanese identity suggests that conceptualizations of the Taiwanese people and identity were held together by a staunch, essentially ideological, rejection of the Chinese. Being Taiwanese meant maintaining some kind of common relation to the Taiwanese state and fellow inhabitants, at the same time it meant opposition to the Chinese. And the two are never far apart. To satisfy these conditions, being Taiwanese was reduced to a linear process: being Taiwanese simply meant being a citizen. And so long as you were a citizen, you were required to become part of the Taiwanese struggle and could contribute by resisting the Chinese in solidarity. The roots of your heritage mattered less to your qualification as a Taiwanese than the hatred you could demonstrate in face of a common enemy.


Anthony Smith famously asserted that a civic identity presupposes the existence of lateral ethnies, a “wide but shallow” machination of the ruling class that fails to permeate commoners, while an ethnic identity was preceded by the existence of vertical ethnies, wherein all social strata share a common culture and heritage.[15] Against the backdrop of Smith’s popular articulation of these ethnies as the ethnic cores in the genesis of nationalism, or “named human populations with shared ancestry myths, histories and cultures, having an association with a specific territory, and a sense of solidarity,”[16] this article provides the grounds for theoretically reimagining the relationship between ethnic identity, civic identity, and culture. Where the nationalism literature largely distinguishes culture and politics, this article demonstrates that (a) the two are not altogether separate, as culture operated as a tool of repression for political gain in Taiwanese history, at the same time that (b) cultural affinity borne of a shared culture or ethnicity does not necessarily predict a cohesive civic identity, as followers of Smith would expect,[17] evinced by how Taiwanese anti-Sinoism ignored their shared culture and ethnicity with their mainland Chinese counterparts to produce a civic national identity opposed to theirs.

Taiwanese anti-Sinoism ignored their shared culture and ethnicity with their mainland Chinese counterparts to produce a civic national identity opposed to theirs.

Furthermore, in elucidating this anti-Sinoism, this article sheds light on how the boundaries between lateral and vertical ethnies are flexible across several accounts of national identity: (i) how civic national identities can actually arise from vertical ethnies, as in the historical and contemporary development of the Taiwanese national identity; (ii) in a similar vein, how a civic identity can encompass fluid transitions between vertical (an identity shared across social classes) and lateral ethnies (an identity confined within an elite class), like how the Taiwanese identity essentially created elites as a tool to advance populist, extremist interests; (iii) and how vertical ethnies themselves are fluid and can be identified from within existing vertical ethnies as vehicles to consolidate national identity, as the Taiwanese did with regards to the mainland Chinese identity. In doing so, this article ultimately sensitizes the nationalism literature to the fluid ways in which a civic national identity can arise, simultaneously underscoring the interconnected, yet often disassociated, relationship between culture and politics.

References and Footnotes

  1. Wang, Chris. 2013. "Taiwanese prefer independence over unification: survey." Taipei Times. Retrieved July 19, 2015:
  2. Hou, Arnold. 2014. “Taiwan urged to stop discriminating against mainland spouses of Taiwanese citizens.” Women of China. Retrieved August 7, 2015 from:
  3. Dreyer, June Teufel. 2003. “Taiwan’s Evolving Identity.” Presented at Woodrow Wilson International Institute for Scholars, July 17, Washington, DC. Retrieved August 7, 2015 from:
  4. Myers, Ramon H. and Hsiao-ting Lin. 2008. “Starting Anew on Taiwan.” Hoover Institution 2. Retrieved August 7, 2015 from:
  5. Wang, Fu-Chang. 2005. “Why bother about textbooks?: An analysis of the origin of the disputes over Renshi Tawian textbooks in 1997.” In John Makeham and A-chin Hsiau (eds.), Cultural, Ethnic, and Political Nationalism in Contemporary Taiwan, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  6. Ho, Ming-sho. 2014. “The Resurgence of Social Movements Under the Ma Ying-jeou Government: A Political Opportunity Structure Perspective.” Pp. 100–119 in Political Changes in Taiwan Under Ma Ying-jeou: Partisan Conflict, Policy Choices, External Constraints and Security Challenges, edited by J. Cabestan and J. DeLisle. London: Routledge.
  7. Hioe, Brian. 2015. “Police violence in the Sunflower movement.” New Bloom Magazine. Retrieved August 7, 2015 from:
  8. TVBS Poll Center. 2015. “太陽花學運退場民調.” (Sunflower student movement exit polls) [Taiyanghua Xueyuntuichang Wentiao] TVBS Poll Center. Retrieved August 8, 2015 from:
  9. Ng, Jason Y. 2014. “Why a little-understood trade agreement upsets so many in Taiwan.” South China Morning Post. Retrieved January 9, 2016:
  10. Mann, Michael. 2005. The Dark Side of Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 33
  11. Ibid. Pp. 30
  12. Smucker, Jonathan. 2014. “Can Prefigurative Politics Replace Political Strategy?” Berkeley Journal of Sociology 58. Retrieved from:
  13. Sunflower Movement 太陽花學運. 2014. “【堅持,直到島嶼天光】(太陽花宣言全文)歡迎分享.”
  14. Stilz, Anna. 2009. “Civic Nationalism and Language Policy.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 37(3): 257-292.
  15. Smith, Anthony D. 2002. “When is a nation.” Geopolitics 7(2): 5–32. Pp. 15
  16. Smith, Anthony D. 1986. The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford: Blackwell. Pp. 32
  17. Smith, Anthony D. 1991. National Identity. London: Penguin. Pp. 33