Written by Tracey Cheng

Taiwan’s Sunflower Protest: Digital Anatomy of a Movement

Taiwan’s Sunflower Protest: Digital Anatomy of a Movement by Tracey Cheng

(Photo: Gazhua Jiang)

Additional Writing and Support by Peichieh Chen

On March 18th, 2014, hundreds of students occupied the “Legislative Yuan”, Taiwan’s parliament, to protest against the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA). A network of tech-savvy volunteers immediately began to use digital tools to broadcast their message to sympathizers and the public. Soon, thousands of citizens rallied on the streets outside the parliament to support the students inside. This movement became known as the “Sunflower Movement.”

In the eyes of many students, CSSTA had been hastily signed between the respective governments of Taiwan and China without fully informing the Taiwanese public of what it entails. Taiwan’s government asserted that the agreement would boost Taiwan’s faltering economy, but students thought it would result in Taiwan becoming too dependent on China at the expense of Taiwan’s relations with other allies, and thus become vulnerable to political pressure from Beijing.

Students occupying the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan's parliament.

Occupy Taiwan Legislature by Voice of America. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

On March 23rd, protesters broke into the Executive Yuan building, the seat of Taiwan’s executive branch. Riot police evicted them by force. A national uproar ensued and resentment toward the government reached another level, partly fueled by the global support for the Sunflower Movement’s nonviolent protests. On March 30th, just 12 days into the movement, students organized a demonstration that saw more than 500,000 Taiwanese citizens taking to the streets in support of their cause.

The government could not withstand the pressure. In a speech, Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-Pyng accepted the demands of the protestors. The movement officially concluded on April 10th when the students who had been occupying the parliament left the premises.

The Sunflower Movement became one of the biggest political movements in the past 30 years of Taiwan history. It awoke a younger generation’s awareness about politics, democracy and the identity of Taiwan as a country.

However, what most stood out about this movement was its clever use of technology and digital media. Enabled by the fast collaboration of a self-organized group of volunteers, the movement took flight in ways never seen before and immediately garnered the attention of Taiwanese citizens worldwide in record time.

Having it Covered Live streaming the movement

From the very first moment of the occupation, setting up an ongoing live broadcast from inside the parliament became a top priority. It was so important, a photo of a pair of flip-flops supporting the iPad used to film and live stream the event during the first hours of the occupation turned into an iconic image.

iPad and flip-flops
A pair of flip-flops and a live-streaming iPad became to symbolize the Sunflower Movement's digital DNA.

(Photo: Diung Libiu/Chang Liyou)

Live streaming was later taken over by g0v.tw, a website launched in 2012 and run by more than 100 members. Their mission: create an open and transparent government so that citizens can make better informed decisions. Over the past few years the group had worked on several projects with the goal of delivering easy-to-understand information to Taiwan citizens by using simplified graphics, web pages and layman’s terms.

To broadcast the unfolding event, the g0v.tw team’s first challenge was to set up a stable and reliable wireless internet environment – the lifeblood of the movement. At first, they tried working with existing WiMAX networks but then moved on to constructing their own servers when it became clear that they would need faster service to keep up with the amount of traffic they were receiving.

Now, instead of relying only on mainstream media, volunteers and the public had a faster and more reliable way of obtaining information. Over time, an impressive list of related links to the movement and transcripts of all the major speeches and announcements was compiled on g0v.tw’s official webpage for the movement. The g0v.tw team and their site were an important part of the success of the March 30th rally because of the technical support they were able to provide despite the massive turnout of 500,000 people.

Throughout the occupation, g0v.tw and its many supporters relied heavily on Hackpad, a collective editing tool similar to Google Docs. Hackpad was adopted early on and was ultimately responsible for ensuring the successful collaboration of more than 1500 volunteers with transcript and data documentation. Due to the heavy traffic on Hackpad as the movement gathered steam, its servers were completely overloaded more than five times in just three days, necessitating the addition of extra servers to keep up with the demand.

Crowdfunding Success Breaking records

Around-the-clock live streaming and heavy social media use quickly turned the protest into a larger movement. But in order to spread the message more effectively, the movement needed something movements typically lack: money.

Crowdfunding was the natural solution. The students set up a funding project on FlyingV.cc, one of the leading crowdfunding websites in Taiwan. Within 12 hours, the goal of 6.3 million NTD ($210,000) was reached. This money funded full-page advertisements in one of the major newspapers in Taiwan as well as the New York Times.

The funding campaign for the Sunflower Movement became Taiwan’s fastest crowdfunding project to reach its goal, despite the lack of any prior planning. The accompanying website 4am.tw was designed and constructed within 24 hours by and all-volunteer force of 10 translators and four engineers.

Screenshot Vdemocracy
Crowd-funding start-up FlyingV started a site for social projects as a result of the Sunflower Movement's success.


For crowd-funding platform FlyingV, the story didn’t end there. The start-up was fined 50,000 NTD ($1,700) for violating their contract with Gre Tai Securities Market by assisting in the crowdfunding for a social movement. FlyingV responded by announcing their plans to develop an alternative crowdfunding site not under contract with Gre Tai Securities Market. VDemocracy.tw was launched on April 7th, 2014.

Transparency Volunteers in Action

An amazing number of people were willing to step up for the cause. In a short time, supporters became active volunteers. The driving force behind this rapid groundswell of support was the perceived lack of transparency and loss of trust in the government.

Determined to shed more light on government action, the movement put a strong focus on growing the public’s awareness on the issues through a continuous supply of information.

Here are three examples of websites that were launched after the movement started to encourage Taiwanese citizens to exercise their civil rights and defend their livelihoods against the perceived threat of the CSSTA.

How will your company be affected by CSSTA tells visitors what the trade agreement means to them.


How your company will be affected by the CSSTA (你被服冒了嗎)

Enter any company’s registered name to this website and it will show if and how the company will be affected by the CSSTA according to the current terms of the agreement. The use of witty graphics and layman’s terms on the website aims to make this serious topic accessible to everyone.

CSSTA Battle (服冒東西軍)

This website offers a compilation of both positive and negative news and opinions about CSSTA. The movement and its demands received a lot of media attention which led to a significant growth in debate around the trade agreement. Information such as the actual terms of the agreement, the process of how it was to be passed, the legitimacy of the occupation at the parliament, and police actions to disperse the crowd on March 24th became hot topics once the general public took note of the whole situation. The site makes it easy for visitors to browse topics they find interesting and offers opposing arguments without censorship.

Review Our Own CSSTA (自己的服冒自己審)

The Sunflower Movement started as a response to a controversial and obscure process to pass the trade agreement with China. This blatant disregard of the legal process outraged many citizens. They now want to have a hand in the oversight of the trade agreement since they no longer trust the government to do so on their behalf. This website breaks down complex regulations, rendering them clearer and easier to understand. It also provides transcripts from previous public hearings, all the related public hearing recordings, and clauses of the agreement.

Movement Toolbox

Aftermath The Sunflower's legacy

As the Sunflower Movement came to a close, the question on many peoples’ minds became: “What happens now that the parliament will no longer be occupied?”

Screenshot Appendectomy Project
The Appendectomy project adds a slightly disturbing medical analogy to the impeachment of legislators.


Some felt that it was the right time for the movement to end while others though that doing so equaled surrendering their leverage over the government. In response to this vigorous debate, a new project started to gain momentum. The Appendectomy Project is an online platform designed to rally supporters to impeach legislators who have lost the confidence of the public. The project is based on the premise that all citizens have the right to remove their representatives from office when they think it is necessary. Despite the fact that the requirements for impeachment are rigorous, the residents of certain electoral districts are still pursuing this course for targeted politicians.

The Legacy

The Sunflower Movement has been described as a highly technologically-oriented social movement. Since a majority of participants were students, it was only natural that the movement reflected the digital age in which this generation was born.

The movement left several important legacies behind; it notably created several successful digital strategies ready for adoption by other groups fighting for social change. Case in point: Taiwan’s resurgent anti-nuclear power movement, born right after the Sunflower protests and using a similar digital playbook.

The success of the movement was underscored by the change of attitude towards politics and society by the younger generation; this transformation becomes all the more obvious when contrasted with the absence of high-tech communications in the political struggles of earlier generations.

Although it remains to be seen if the government will make good on its promise to properly review the CSSTA, the Sunflower Movement marks the beginning of a new era in Taiwan’s social movements with its digital success story: the online protest that resulted in and supported a turnaround of public opinion.



Additional Editing by Taylor Dalrymple

Layout and Final Edit by Hanns-Peter Nagel