The Joys and Challenges of Studying Contemporary Protests

This week in North Philly Notes, Ming-sho Ho, author of Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heavenwrites about tracing of the long afterlife of the Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Movement, the subjects of his new book.

Like many book authors, I felt like a weary wayfarer approaching the journey’s destination when my Challenging Beijing’s Mandate of Heaven: Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement was printed in January 2019. When receiving the package of author copies, it is not so much an occasion for triumphal celebration, but rather a moment of relief for ending the seemingly endless proofreading and copyediting of a manuscript one has grown tired of rereading.

My book investigates two consequential protests in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Both the Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Movement took place in 2014, and challenged the growing China’s sharp power in these two societies. The pair of protests shared many similarities, such as student leadership, the participation of educated youth, the reliance on digital communication, and the tactic of nonviolence, which amounted to an inviting topic for comparativists. These two movements have garnered scholarly consideration, as witnessed by the mushrooming publication in the forms of journal special issues and edited volumes. To my knowledge, mine will be the first monograph that deals with both cases at the same time.

When I initiated the contact with Temple University Press editors, the book prospectus stated the goal as a “standard reference of the genesis, the process, and the outcome” of the two major movements. While the first two research targets were relatively straightforward, the tracing of the long afterlife of the Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Movement after their occupy protesters were gone turned out to be more challenging and exciting than expected.

challenging beijings mandate of heaven_smWhen the book manuscript was submitted in spring 2018, there were already signs that the governments of Beijing and Hong Kong have already ratcheted up repression against Umbrella activists. Six newly elected pro-Umbrella legislative councilors were deprived of their membership due to a technical issue of swearing-in. There were more harsh reprisals that I did not have time to put in the book, such as the draconian sentencing of Fishball Revolution participants (up to seven years in prison), the de-facto banning of Joshua Wong’s Demosisto from electoral participation, the disbanding of independence-leaning Hong Kong National Party, and the criminalizing of disrespectful behaviors during national anthem singing. In spite of these political headwinds, younger generation of activists inspired by the Umbrella Movement continued to explore new zones of engagement to promote the unfinished project of democratization.

Post-Sunflower Taiwan did not witness such crackdown; in fact, the subsequent years have largely followed the aspiration of that movement: the pro-China ruling party was voted out of the office, the rise of a progressive party that emerged to be the third largest in the legislature, and the advance of same-sex marriage legalization. However, in the local election and national referendums held in November 2018, Taiwan’s conservatives mounted a successful comeback in the issues of nuclear energy and same-sex marriage. The pro-China opposition party scored a major victory and now poised to win back the national power in the 2020 presidential election. Such drastic reversal highlighted the perils of the low supporting rate that the current presidency chronically faced since taking the office. The silver lining was that more than twenty newly elected local councilors hailed from the Sunflower Movement. Spreading across a number of political parties, these new political faces were in their late twenties and early thirties, and they have the potentials to become Taiwan’s future political leaders for progressive causes.

Studying the contemporary protests incurs the risk of having one’s conclusions “upended” by the latest development. And by the time an academic book has passed the rigorous review and production process, what is painfully described and analyzed has become the history. The Egyptian Tahrir Revolution of 2011 has inspired numerous scholarly works. Yet, the mass euphoria of ending a strongman’s rule and his police state was all too brief; the current situation in Egypt was as repressive as before, and the knowledge that a “successful” revolution has achieved nothing increased the bitterness.

In 1972, China’s Premier Zhou Enlai purported to claim “it is still too early” to speak of the result of the French Revolution of 1789. Such humble acknowledgment of one’s limitation appears to be a necessary reminder for the students of current affairs. The appraisal of the movement results can be different depending on one’s time horizon. A takeaway here is that one should avoiding using the judgmental terms of “success” or “failure” in describing the end of a protest episode. In the case of Taiwan and Hong Kong, it is tempting to jump into this conclusion because the Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Movement has such contrasting endings (a triumphal farewell party versus a mass arrest).

In addition to allowing more room for subsequent development, scholarly attention is also better devoted to those intermediating processes, rather than the final results. In the field of social movement study, the focus on “mechanism”, understood as a universal casual relationship and hence a building block for those “processes” commonly seen in protests, have gain acceptance among research practitioners. Implicit in this methodological reorientation is an understanding that social scientists better stay away from the risky business of predicting dependent variables (usually the results of social movements). It will be more productive to locate and unravel those multiple mechanisms taking place during social movements.

There are joys and challenges in studying the contemporary social movements; after all they are one of the contending forces that attempt to shape the world we are now living in. With the cautious avoidance on the movement result and more attention to the intermediating processes, I am hoping my new book can contribute to the intellectual project of making sense of current politics.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: