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A letter from Jonathan and Emily Seitz in Taiwan

may 2014

Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan

A sign that translates as "God bless Taiwan"

Taiwan is a fascinating place to live. It is a modern democracy, the most multicultural country in East Asia, and a nation with long connections to the West, to Japan, and to Chinese culture. Right now the country exists in a unique political in-between place: it is closely linked to China through trade and through some cultural traditions (and China claims Taiwan as its own, although it has not governed the island since 1895). Most Taiwanese people hope to either maintain the status quo or that Taiwan will be recognized as independent. Against this backdrop, Taiwan’s unpopular president, Ma Ying-Jeou, with the help of members of his party in the parliament, attempted to push through an unpopular trade agreement in March. It would likely have benefited some Taiwanese companies but would also have pushed Taiwan closer to China and might have negatively impacted Taiwan’s own industries.

On March 18 students in Taiwan took over the Legislative Yuan in Taipei in order to stop the proposed trade plan with China. Most of my students and a number of Taiwan Seminary staff members were part of the protest. Many teachers went to be with the students. The president held off from speaking for a number of days and then held a short, unsatisfying press conference. There was a brief period when students attempted to occupy the Presidential Office and were repelled, but otherwise the whole movement, from start to finish, was peaceful. There was even a one-day rally with somewhere between 100,000 and half a million participants filling one of the main squares in Taipei. It was almost festive and helped cement the movement’s positive reputation. After several efforts to find a compromise, the Legislative speaker agreed to postpone the trade pact. Students met and announced that they would leave the Yuan on April 10, which they did.

The Sunflower is the image of the movement

This was my first time seeing something like this in Taiwan, and it is amazing to watch how it impacted the whole society. A doctor friend went on call in case people needed help. The husband of a friend, a police officer, was on the job nearly continuously throughout this period. Students rotated in and out, spending most of their time downtown but also coming out to finalize theses, preach sermons, or otherwise help with church or school activities. In general, people supported the students, and church friends universally saw this as a movement that showed a new vitality in Taiwan.

We learned about the movement in different ways. One night I took Sam to a Taize service organized by the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan (PCT) General Assembly at Chi-nan Presbyterian Church, which is adjacent to the Legislative Yuan. We stayed for about 40 minutes before I decided that contemplative prayer and periods of silence were probably too much for a 6-year-old. We visited the protest area and I found the General Assembly/Seminarians area outside the building. A regular co-worker was there, as were a number of alumni and PCT co-workers. Sam mostly played his video game but did well with the large crowds. I wanted him to have some sense of this history, because Taiwan is the place he’s lived most of his life. I don’t know how much he took from it, but I will definitely remember it.

Seminary students from throughout Taiwan in the protest area

My school gave teachers the option of holding class downtown during Taipei’s ongoing protests, so one afternoon I went with a small group and we spent time looking at the protest posters, signs, and banners outside the Taipei Legislative Yuan. I took pictures, which I’ve posted on my picasa page. Part of what was so amazing to me was how protesters drew on several different protest traditions: some with Christian language, some drawn from U.S. movements like Occupy, and others with indigenous traditions. Some of the signs I photographed I discovered were created by PCT students.

Events like this can be hard to explain in the U.S., because there is so much history and background that is unfamiliar. (You can find a description of this “Sunflower Movement” on Wikipedia.) At the same time, for the church here it is vitally important. The questions relate to Taiwan’s continued sovereignty and to the economic life of society’s more vulnerable (the young, the elderly). The PCT’s General Secretary, Rev. Lyim Hong-Tiong, has written letters about the movement here, here and here. The Presbyterian tradition has often balanced respect for authority with the clear prophetic call to seek justice.

With students visiting the protest sites

Our presence here is a sign of the PC(USA)’s support for Taiwan and its churches. You can support this or future movements in a variety of ways. U.S. citizens created a White House petition related to the issue that you could sign. You can write to legislators or others to let them know about Taiwanese concerns. For many Taiwanese, just knowing that they have been heard and are supported counts for a lot. Advocacy and education are two ways to support the church in Taiwan.

Thank you for your support of our ministry.  We covet your continued prayers, correspondence, advocacy and financial gifts. We are witnesses together of God’s work in Taiwan.

Jonathan and Emily

The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 240
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