Understanding the Trajectory of Social Movements in Taiwan (1980-2010)

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Ho Ming-sho is a professor at the Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University. He has produced a prolific amount of literature and is a respected authority on social movements. Notably he was co-editor of the book The Age of Social Movements: Activism in Taiwan over the last 20 years (社會運動的年代;晚近二十來的台灣行動主義) which was released this year, 2011. The following text gives a background to the current social movement context; it was abstracted from the full paper and focuses more on the environmental movements than the original which gave equal space to different movement types.

For Taiwan, the 65 years since the end of the Second World War can be divided into three periods. The first 15 years saw the rule of the Kuomintang (KMT) (國民黨, Guomindang). Economic transformation characterized the second period. In anticipation of the termination of the United States’ aid, the Taiwanese government began to encourage foreign investment as well as domestic production for the international market. There was rapid development.

The suppression of an opposition demonstration on Human Rights Day in 1979 (the Gaoxiong Incident) (高雄事件, Gaoxiong shijian) ushered in the third period, during which democratization became the dominant force. In spite of the temporary setback, the opposition movement continued to challenge the KMT and successfully founded the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) (民主進步黨, minzhu jinbudang) in 1986. Facing mounting pressure, the government announced the repeal of the 38-year-old martial law on 15 July 1987, thereby formally restoring the frozen political freedoms of speech, assembly and organization. Chen Shui-bian’s victory in the 2000 presidential election marked the end of the political transition and resulted in the first peaceful and democratic power transfer in any Chinese society. In 2008 the DPP government lost power as Ma Ying-jeou led the rejuvenated KMT to reclaim the presidency. In short, militarism, industrialization and democratization, in that order, have been the three major forces that have shaped the contours of Taiwanese society.

In tandem with the different stages of the political transition from authoritarianism to democracy, social movements have undergone processes of fermentation (1980-1986), popular upsurge (1987-1992), institutionalization (1993-1999), incorporation (2000-2007) and resurgence (2008-2010).

(1)   Fermentation (1980-1986)

By the time Taiwan entered the 1980s, new social discontents – environmental degradation, class exploitation and rural impoverishment – that accompanied the rapid industrialization process were already perceptible, while the pre-existing grievances such as sexism and the plight of aborigines had become increasingly intolerable to the public as it became more informed and enlightened. These discontents were what stimulated the emergence of social movements in this period.

As the fruits of economic modernization, the new members of the middle class played the role of vanguard. Medical doctors, journalists, college professors and lawyers were instrumental in establishing pioneer social movement organizations such as the New Environment Magazine (新環境, xin huanjing 1986, conservation movement). There was another group of middle-class activists which adopted a more direct approach and did not shun sensitive issues. In accordance with their more confrontational stance, these activists did not seek to register their organizations officially but instead concentrated their energy on providing assistance to the population targeted. Grass-roots people who had been victimized by industrial pollution (Terao 2002) or prosecuted for their religious beliefs (Rubinstein 1994) also initiated the wave of so-called “self-relief” (自力救濟, zili jiuji). Toward the end of this period, there were signs that the unorganized wave of self-relief activism had matured into a bona-fide social movement

(2) Popular Upsurge (1987-1992)

The lifting of the martial law in 1987 was fundamentally a political calculation to avoid the worst-case scenario of escalating challenges from the opposition party and the social movements that had come onto the scene around the mid-1980s. Political liberalization further stimulated the growth of social movements by removing the invisible psychological fear (Chang 1989). This was demonstrated by the unusually large number of social movement organizations founded in the year 1987 alone.

In addition, the right of public assembly was partially restored in 1988, and greater freedom to form civic organizations was legally granted in 1989. Meanwhile, the DPP also discovered the political utility of social protests, so that many politicians began to take a more active role. Social movements became more and more widespread and radicalized toward the end of the 1980s – an explosive situation diagnosed by O’Donnell and Schmitter as a “popular upsurge” (1986: 53-54).

Prior to the lifting of martial law, the controversy concerning nuclear energy was mainly a “gentlemen’s disagreement”, with sceptical scholars, journalists and politicians voicing their opposition. In March 1988 anti-nuclear activism spread to the grass roots as local residents near the proposed fourth nuclear power station launched a protest that would be sustained for more than one decade (Ho 2003: 693-694). In September and October, fishermen whose livelihood had been devastated by a pollution incident blockaded the Linyuan Petrochemical Industrial Zone (林園石化工業區, Linyuan shihua gongyequ) for three weeks, virtually paralyzing the whole industry (Ho and Su 2008: 2409).

In addition to escalating their disruptiveness, social movements were raising the level of their protests. In response to the ascendency of the conservatives within the KMT, which sought to derail the liberalization initiated by Chiang Ching-kuo and followed by Lee Teng-hui, college students organized a protest in March 1990 to demand immediate democratic reforms. As part of the so-called Wild Lily Movement (野百合運動, ye baihe yundong), students occupied the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial (which was derogatorily renamed the “Chiang Kai-shek Temple” (中正廟, Zhong Zheng miao)) and requested direct dialogue with the political incumbents. The students’ timely intervention tilted the balance of power in favour of the KMT reformist faction and was peacefully concluded with Lee’s promise to expedite political reforms (Wright 1999).

In the national elections of 1990 and 1992, many activists obtained DPP membership and joined the party’s campaign in an attempt to bring movement issues to the ballot box. In the end, the joint force of the social movements and the opposition party proved capable of resisting the authoritarian backlash.

(3)   Institutionalization (1993-1999)

Here, I understand institutionalization as the process by which something becomes a permanent, routine, and legitimate feature in a newly democratized society. Social movements are institutionalized insofar as they are increasingly tolerated by officials, are accepted by the public, and become the modular way for a variety of societal interests to stake their claims.

Three aspects of the post-1992 political change in Taiwan were conducive to the institutionalization of social movements. Firstly, the era of preventive and politicized policing of popular protests was gone, as the central government relegated the command of the police to local executives. Secondly, before the 1992 legislative election, only a small percentage of lawmakers were directly elected by Taiwanese people. With the opening up of law-making channels, lobbying became an effective method for advancing the social movement agenda. Finally, the DPP’s securing of a place in Taiwan’s political arena triggered a chemical change in its relations with social movements. The close comradeship of the past obviously disappeared. As the DPP came to possess more electoral seats, it faced more diversified constituencies and had to balance the demands of social movement organizations with those of more conservative sectors. Symptomatic of this centrist turn was the decision to abolish the Department of Social Movements (社會運動部, shehui yundongbu) in the DPP Central Headquarters in 1996.

Taking advantage of the more favourable political atmosphere, social movements were able to make some tangible progress. Overcoming opposition from economic officials, environmentalists succeeded in legislating environmental impact assessment in 1994. In addition to these breakthroughs, some social movements made inroads within the administrative structure by gaining the right to participate in some decision-making channels or obtaining official recognition as the legitimate and sole representative for their constituencies.

While social movements were gaining political influence in this period, some activists turned their attention to their professional areas. The Association for Taiwan Journalists (台灣新聞記者協會, Taiwan xinwen jizhe xiehui) (1995), the Judicial Reform Foundation (民間司法改革基金會, minjian sifa gaige jijinhui) (1997), the Taiwan Health Care Reform Foundation (台灣醫療改革基金會, Taiwan yiliao gaige jijinhui) (1999), and the Taiwan Media Watch Foundation (台灣媒體觀察教育基金會, Taiwan meiti guancha jiaoyu jijinhui) (1999) were representatives of these reform efforts. The pursuit of journalistic autonomy, judicial independence, better protection of patients’ rights, and media democracy was best described as “unobtrusive mobilization” (Katzenstein 1990) in that it rarely captured the national spotlight by mobilizing large-scale crowds in street actions. Nevertheless, it reflected the spillover effects of the institutionalized social movements that were growing to encompass more issues in everyday life.

Finally, social movements representing marginalized people were a noticeable phenomenon in the 1990s. In this period gay and lesbian people came out of the closet and demanded their civil liberties (Chao 2001). Their activism culminated in the first gay parade in September 2000. In 1997 the abrupt decision to revoke the licences of legal prostitutes gave rise to activism among sex workers, who demanded the full legalization of their trade.

(4)   Incorporation (2000-2007)

During Chen Shui-bian’s presidential campaign in 2000, many pro-reform scholars and movement activists were recruited to formulate the policy proposals that were to be implemented once the DPP conquered the presidency. It turned out that some social movement organizations were included in the decision-making process, yet they were largely unable to produce structural changes. The DPP’s eight-year term became a memory of disenchantment for those once-optimistic activists.

Under the DPP government, veteran activists were for the first time appointed to lead official agencies including the Environmental Protection Administration (環境保護署, huanjing baohushu), the Ministry of Education (教育部, jiaoyubu), the Council of Indigenous People (原住民委員會, yuan zhumin weiyuanhui) and the National Youth Commission (青年輔導委員會, qingnian fudao weiyuanhui). New decision-making institutions created by the DPP government, such as the Committee for a Nuclear-free Homeland (非核家園宣導委員會, feihe jiayuan xuandao weiyuanhui), broadened the scope of participation. Among the pre-existing channels, the DPP government also made possible the nomination of bona-fide movement activists. This happened in the Environmental Impact Assessment Committee (環境影響評估委員會, huanjing yingxiang pinggu weiyuanhui) and the National Council for Sustainable Development (國家永續發展委員會, guojia yong xu fazhan weiyuanhui). In 2002 environmentalists succeeded in passing the Basic Environment Act (環境基本法, huanjing jibenfa), which enshrined the nuclear-free homeland clause.

The gains that movement activists achieved through their cooperation with DPP incumbents were often symbolic in nature, rather than genuine concessions that led to the substantial redistribution of resources and power. For instance, only after the DPP decided to give up the attempt to abolish the controversial fourth nuclear power plant in 2001 did it allow the phrase “nuclear-free homeland” to be written into law (Ho 2005). Activists serving on the National Human Rights Commission threatened to resign in protest twice in 2005/06. The activists ultimately prevailed in both incidents. However, the environmentalists who sat on the Environmental Impact Assessment Committee were not successful in similar efforts. Their walkout failed to reverse the official endorsement of some controversial construction projects.

In Chen’s second term, financial scandals related to his personal aides and family members erupted. By that time, the DPP government had been severely besieged, with both progressives and conservatives demanding Chen’s resignation. The final two years of the party’s term saw a slight return to the reformist policy orientation, as evidenced by the Big Warmth plan to increase welfare spending (2006); the decision to temporarily halt the Taibei Mass Rapid Transition work, which threatened the Lesheng Sanitarium (樂生療養院, Lesheng liaoliangyuan) (2007); and the rejection of the Suao-Hualian Highway project (蘇花高, Su Hua gao) (2008). During the 2008 presidential campaign the DPP also stressed its commitment to social justice by emphasizing the priority of “the underprivileged people” and the eco-environment. Its candidate Frank Hsieh (Xie Changting) coined the slogan “happiness economy” (幸福經濟, xingfu jingji) – an explicit critique of the previous “salvage economy” course.

(5)   Resurgence (2008-2010)

When Ma Ying-jeou won the presidential election by a larger-than-expected margin of more than two million votes in March 2008, the KMT already possessed nearly three-quarters of the seats in the Legislative Yuan (Fell 2010: 190). The conservative hegemony boded dimly for movement activists. Furthermore, after several years of working within the government, many social movement organizations had lost the capacity to mobilize their mass constituencies. Large-scale demonstrations by union members, anti-nuclear crowds and the pro-education-reform middle class had become a distant memory of the 1990s. This raised the question of whether social movements were capable of “getting restarted” (Hsiao and Ku 2010).

More than two years after the second change in the ruling party, the question can be answered affirmatively. In November 2008 the student movement made an unexpected comeback to protest the police brutality that had occurred when the Ma government received China’s emissary. Self-consciously following the precedent of 18 years ago, the student activists called their movement “Wild Strawberry” (野草莓, ye caomei), and their protests were no longer limited to Taibei but spread into Xinzhu, Taizhong, Jiayi, Tainan and Gaoxiong. In September 2009 the intensive community canvassing by environmentalist activists bore fruit as they won the referendum on a casino in Penghu County. The liberalization of the casino industry had been promoted by local KMT politicians and endorsed by Ma, and the casino’s defeat signified the fact that movement activists had not lost their know-how in connecting with the grass roots. After a long silence, the farmers’ movement reappeared, and this time the issue was compulsory land acquisition to develop industrial zones. In June 2010 an amateur journalist videotaped the shocking image of a rice paddy being destroyed by excavators sent by the government. The video clip created a national sensation and galvanized the supporters into a much-publicized protest.

Sensing a growing political market, the DPP re-established its Department of Social Movements in February 2009. However, the involvement of DPP politicians remained minimal and was not always welcomed on the protest occasion. The opposition party did not offer resources to the re-emerging social movements – quite a different scenario compared to what had happened two decades previously. What, then, explained the unanticipated surge of social movements?

The question can be answered in two ways. Firstly, why did social movements react with such resilience and combativeness after the eight traumatic years under DPP rule? Although Ma Ying-jeou de-emphasized the ideological question during his campaign, his government quickly put forward many regressive policies that alarmed social movement supporters. The new KMT government condoned the business practice of furlough to save on labour costs, attempted to increase military officers on campus, tightened partisan control over the public media, used the judicial system to incriminate political opponents, restored a China-centred history curriculum, and intimidated critics who questioned its environmental policy (the Environmental Protection Administration gave me a phone call to express its concern over an op-ed article I wrote), to mention a few. In other words, while movement activists were disillusioned by the DPP’s failure to promote progressive reforms, they simply could not tolerate the reactionary attempt to restore the status quo ante. The threat – or “the cost it [a social group] expects to suffer if it does not take action” (Goldstone and Tilly 2001: 183) – prompted the activists to undertake aggressive actions.

Secondly, how did the resurgence of social movements come about? Movements could not be resuscitated without an effective mobilizing strategy. In the later years of the DPP government, many activists learned that they should look beyond the government as the only leverage for change and started to explore new avenues. After their 2006 resignations from official positions in environmental impact assessment, environmentalists launched a lawsuit in the Administrative Court to continue their opposition to the questionable Central Science Park (中部科學園區, zhongbu kexue yuanqu) project. In January 2010 their persistence was rewarded in that the Supreme Administrative Court annulled the environmental impact assessment’s conclusion. In addition, environmentalists adopted a new approach in their campaign to oppose the Guoguang Petrochemical Project (國光石化, Guoguang shihua). By highlighting the endangered white dolphin, they launched a drive to solicit donations in order to buy the precious tidal estuary in central Taiwan. By August 2010 more than 50,000 volunteers had signed up. The apparent success of this campaign resulted in a national spotlight on this issue, as the mainstream media and leading academics publicly expressed their support for the environmentalist camp.

Social movements have clearly come back and reclaimed their customary role as advocates and organizers. Nevertheless, how much this wave of activism resurgence will ultimately achieve hinges on the evolution of the broader political context, in which social movements certainly play a significant, albeit seldom dominant, role.


Just like the economic and political dimensions of modernization in Taiwan, the growth of this particular civil-society force has occurred within a relatively short period of time. In the early 1980s social movements were still a novel phenomenon that produced fear and a sense of uncertainty among many people. Now social movements have become an established and permanent feature of Taiwan’s democracy, regardless of who presides over the Presidential House. Over the long haul, social movements have experienced repression, co-optation, and disillusionment; yet they continue to demonstrate remarkable resilience in their pursuit of social reforms.

This article was extracted and adapted from the following article by Professor Ho Ming-sho:
1. 2010, “Understanding the Trajectory of Social Movements in Taiwan (1980-2010),” Journal of Current Chinese Affairs 39(3): 3-22.


Last modified on Wednesday, 08 January 2014 17:34
Ming-sho Ho (何明修)

NTU Department of Sociology, Assistant Professor. Research includes social movements, environmental sociology, sociology of labor.


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