Why did the Wild Strawberries go mouldy?

by on Wednesday, 18 May 2011 9998 hits Comments
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In November 2008, the Kuomintang (KMT) in Taiwan and the Chinese Communist Party held their highest level meeting in 60 years. As largely expected, all did not go smoothly as pro-Taiwan independence supporters and other dissatisfied groups showed up in their masses 'sieging' the entrance to the Grand Hotel, Taipei where Chen Yunlin, the emissary from China's Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) would be received. As the protestors attempted to block Chen from entering, or held up signs in protest, questionable police brutality was used against the protestors, giving rise to impassioned criticism and a fear particularly in academic circles, that the state of human rights was sliding back to the days of martial law.

Following the Chen Yunlin Incident, at the suggestion of a BBS message from NTU Sociology professor Li Ming-tsung, with the support of some influential NTU Sociology professors, a sizable number of students quickly moved to take action condemning the police brutality at the Grand Hotel. Almost twenty years after the Wild Lilies had successfully tunnelled a passage to democracy; it was now the turn of the Wild Strawberries to bear fruit. Beginning with a sit-in protest at the Administrative Yuan on 11/06, it would not be until over a month later when the students finally left their resting place in Freedom Square empty handed; their demands unsatisfied.

Why was the student movement generally seen as a failure? Did it achieve anything at all if not in tangible gains, perhaps in innovation or experience? What were the organizational phenomenon and difficulties present? Most importantly, what lessons did the students and activists learn from this?

While there are a plethora of opinions on why the movement failed, the most detailed analyses have been from Ho Tung-hung (何東洪) and Sean Hsieh (謝昇佑).

Rob Voight translated Ho Tung-hung's article, My notes on Yecaomei of which the initial article appeared in Reflextions Magazine (思想). At the time it was the first real in depth analysis on the movement organization. Ho was one of the so-called "wild professors" alongside National Taiwan University's (NTU) Zhuoshuixi club (including Fan Yun who was a student leader during the Wild Lillies Student Movement 18 years earlier). Ho Tung-hung's article takes note of how the movement was seen as NTU-centric from the start, as the call to arms was sent on NTU's BBS chat system by Li Ming-tsung who was later sued unsuccessfully by the government for his role in setting off the protests. Due to this NTU-centric perception many well established and experienced activsts were reluctant to participate. Ho feels that this was exacerbated by the movement organisation, or lack of it, which was messy due to the reluctance to have a real leadership. This is expressed in the final sentence of his essay, where he expresses the opinion that "Post-Modernism should never be allowed on to the streets, yet it was allowed and with that as the movement relocated to Chiang Kai-shek Temple, it perished." Going to the Temple (Freedom Square) could be seen as nostalgia for and an attempt to follow in the footsteps of the Wild Lillies student movement, however sitting in a public square, where people are generally free to walk around was far less daring than going directly in front of the Presidential Palace, a road normally open to vehicles which would have continued to cause furore and question the Parade and Assembly Act (which controls on the freedom of assembly rather than guaranteeing it).

The post modernism mentioned here also refers to the attempt to stage the protest completely outside of the structural hierarchical organization model of other social movements or political parties,  perhaps the more socialist model favoured by some. Furthermore this 'post-modernist' dislike of authority extended even to those 'Wild Professors' sympathetic and supportive of the movement who were refused a greater role in the movement due to a fear of the idea of being pawns in a game of chess (下指導棋). While there were many non-NTU students, Ho Tung-Hung picks up on some immature actions which he feels further alienated established social movements. For example the setting a line in which only students were supposed to be allowed to pass, wanting to keep the protests apolitical only seperated them from the people and refusing for a while to recieve the Sanying aboriginal community, who were hardened activists from their past few years fighting the demolishing of their houses and had come to offer their support.

Doctorate candidate at NTU's Graduate Institute of Building and Planning, Sean Hsieh, gave his own analysis of events, which contrasted and to an exent tried to refute Ho Tung-hung's critique of the Wild Strawberries, providing Reflextions second in-depth analysis of the movement, with his article "Incidental or Inevitable".  Sean Hsieh is now part of Youth Synergy Taiwan, which offers support to various social organisations, and is also completing his doctoral thesis at NTU's Graduate Institute of Building and Planning department. Hsieh early on takes issue with Ho's final sentence proclaiming that Post Modernism should never take to the streets, stating firmly that it had already has taken to the streets. Hsieh feels that Ho failed to pick up on the incidental nature of the protests, all the unavoidables that the students, who could not possibly have been prepared for having no chance to meet up in advance anticipating these events. The police brutality, as well as the poor decisions made by the government to forcibly remove the students from the Administrative Yuan, when most students were probably planning to leave for their end of term exams all forced the students to join together and make a tough decision rapidly, without pre-organisation.

We interviewed Sean Hsieh at Cafe Philo (Chinese only)

One thing that Ho Tung-hung found most enraging was the burning of 35 000NTD a month on the "WildBerry House" towards the end of the movement. He felt it was against the DIY spirit of social movements and an insult to all those who had been taking part in social movements, putting in huge efforts just to earn their causes peanuts. He felt the money would have been far better distributed amongst other social movements while they went back and raised the money again, whilst gaining more experience taking an active part in social movements over a sustained period of time.

Hsieh feels this is however another 'incidental'. An unavoidable decision to make for the students. People had donated tens of thousands of NTDollars in support, and they could not but attempt use it productively if they were not to let down the people. He discusses Wild Strawberries instead as a symptom of deep structural problems in Taiwanese society. These strctural problems are the education system and the political trauma Taiwanese have suffered over successive goverments. This led to a mutual mistrust and suspicion on the square, that made it hard to build a leadership or common aims. Furthermore Hsieh evokes Althusser's evaluation on Machiavelli that what we need to really work at is "Opening new spaces". Arguably the controversial WIldberry House was a product of these structural problems in Taiwanese society and an opportunity for more effective successors, which could attempt to rectify these structural problems(see article on Movement Spaces). He feels that blaming the failure of the movement on the incompleteness of the movement demands and divergence from traditional forms of student movement organization, misses the point and what is important is that this movement opens up the doors for reflexive-criticism. "Only by reading profound philosophical works can patterns emerge in your mind  which will be engraved in your mind and soul. Finally the meticulous thinking processes cultivated in the process will eventually come to use during the longer struggle."

While Hsieh and Ho present different arguments here, it is possible to see that future movements could take advice from both sides. Indeed many of the students lacked experience and there is always a need for more people to engage long-term in social movements, so that they are constantly struggling and more well organised, should similar actions be needed in the future. At the same time, it is also necessary that spaces are opened where people can mature their oppinions through research, discussion and self-reflection. In a democracy, well informed and vigilant activists are the vanguard against tyranny. Indeed, since the Wild Strawberries student movement came to a climax, some of these 'spaces' have begun to develop.



[1] Translated from the Chinese by Rob Voigt. Original article 我的台北“野草莓”雜記/何東洪 published in 《思想》Reflextion, 11th ed March 2009, 《聯經》Linking Publishing Company.

[2] Article in Chinese 偶然還是必然?野草莓學運的結構限制與機運/謝昇佑, 《思想》Reflextion 12th ed June 2009,  《聯經》Linking Publishing Company


Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34
Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.


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