Tea Leaf Nation

The Revolution Might Be Televised

How new media allowed young Taiwanese protesters to reach the world, faster.

Photo: J. Michael Cole via Ketagalan Media
Photo: J. Michael Cole via Ketagalan Media

In 2007, two U.S. citizens and a Hungarian launched a live video-streaming site called Ustream to help their military friends stationed in Iraq stay in touch with their families in the United States. They could never have predicted that seven years later, students in Taiwan who occupied the island’s parliament starting on March 18 to protest the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) with China would use Ustream’s free service to bypass mainstream media and broadcast live coverage of the protests to viewers around the world. 

Ustream has given protesters the ability to shape their message on their own terms. Longson Chang, an NGO worker at a Taiwanese human rights organization who entered the parliament with protesters on March 18, told Foreign Policy that he immediately thought of the platform because it was quick to set up an account and easy to use. He also added that Ustream has been used in other recent Taiwanese protests, including one against the construction of a nuclear power plant. Once on the air, he said, viewers could see and hear live what was happening inside the chambers while communicating with occupiers in real time through the platform’s message stream. 

The occupation began a day after legislator Chang Ching-chung (no relation to Longson Chang), a member of the ruling Kuomintang party, presided over a March 17 hearing at which he hastily declared the CSSTA reviewed and sent it to the legislature for a final vote. (The agreement has sat idle while the occupation continues.) Chang’s actions angered lawmakers from the Democratic Progressive Party, the Kuomintang’s major opposition, as well as students who have criticized the lack of transparency behind the legislative process. On March 27, Wang Jin-pyng, president of the Legislative Yuan, the parliament, called a meeting with legislators from all parties to discuss what to do next. After two hours, though, officials were nowhere closer to a resolution than when they began. The CSSTA, signed by China and Taiwan in June 2013, would open up dozens of service sectors to Chinese investment, stoking fears that small- and medium-sized Taiwanese businesses may have trouble competing with their bigger Chinese counterparts. The pact has brought into sharp relief just how fearful Taiwanese protesters remain of China’s influence on Taiwan’s society as a whole.

Ustream has provided a functional medium for connecting protesters and netizens. To circumvent Taiwan’s mainstream media outlets — which protesters have criticized for sometimes distorting their message or exaggerating the news once coverage of the occupation picked up — students soon began traversing the perimeter of the Legislative Yuan with iPhones and iPads and airing footage and commentary about protests on nearby streets. Meanwhile, inside the parliament, Chang and others jury-rigged a pair of slippers to prop up an iPad they positioned on the railing of the second-floor balcony. (Next Media TV, a popular Taiwanese television station, and Apple Daily, a Taiwanese newspaper, also have live video feeds to the chambers on their websites.)

Since the start of the occupation, iPad cameras have provided continuous live video from the chambers, whose two main exits remain stuffed shut with furniture piled high by students. A portrait of revolutionary Sun Yat-sen, who in 1911 helped topple thousands of years of imperial rule in China, joins the flag of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and political messages tacked on walls to form a colorful, if jumbled, backdrop for live broadcasts. On Ustream, broadcasters sitting out of view scroll through comments left in Chinese, Japanese, and English on Ustream’s real-time message stream and provide commentary for viewers in the three languages.

Viewer queries have been numerous and varied, particularly in the hours after the occupation began, during which time 40,000 to 70,000 netizens watched at any given moment. Echoing news reports, viewers expressed concern on several occasions that police were about to storm the chambers; broadcasters allayed those fears. Chang said many were also curious about how hundreds of demonstrators organized trips to the limited number of bathrooms. (Broadcasters told them they had a system in place.) Chang said protesters also used live images to prove that students were not vandalizing the parliament chambers, contrary to some reports. 

As tensions escalated on March 24 between police and a group of protesters who briefly occupied the Executive Yuan, the seat of Taiwan’s government cabinet, YouTube, Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter provided platforms to post raw footage and images of bloodied students roughed up by police and protesters hosed down by water cannons. Civilians also filmed officers using batons and shields to hit and prod students sitting in protest in the street. Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported that 119 police officers and 55 civilians were injured as a result. (Student leaders called for a new round of protests outside the presidential office building on March 30.)

Organizers have also enlisted the web to mobilize students, procure supplies, and inform observers abroad of breaking developments. The website g0v.tw also served as a one-stop shop for netizens searching for the latest protest news culled and reported by protesters. Calling itself a "community promoting information transparency," g0v.tw maintains regularly updated links to live and recorded broadcasts, both inside and outside the parliament, as well as Chinese- and English-language running transcripts, written by protesters, about goings-on inside the chambers.

Even Google Docs and Hackpad, a free sharing platform, have proved handy in creating and sharing maps and spreadsheets with lists of needed supplies that are updated in real time. (Requests have included instant noodles, flashlights, toilet paper, and mosquito repellent.) On March 24, organizers posted a request on a spreadsheet asking for motorcycle helmets to be delivered to protesters whom police were removing from the Executive Yuan. After checking in online, volunteers fanned out across Taipei to purchase items and deliver them to students barricaded inside the parliament. Others have placed orders through PChome 24h, a Taiwanese shopping website that guarantees delivery in 24 hours, and have shipped goods directly to the Legislative Yuan. 

Chen told Foreign Policy he knows that occupying the Legislative Yuan is illegal, but he views it as civil disobedience. When "a government has clearly violated the principles of democracy," Chen said, "then we must use illegal means to correct" government advances. And taking control of the medium through which protesters are channeling their message has given the group, now calling itself the "Sunflower Movement," direct and expanded access to citizens around the world who are free to judge for themselves whether protesters have a legitimate case to make.

<p class="MsoNormal" style="text-align: justify"> Chris Fuchs is a New York-based freelance journalist who has worked as an editor and reporter in Taiwan and frequently contributes to the Taipei Times. </p>