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Activist profiles: the leaders of the Sunflower Student Movement

2014/03/31 17:43:13

Lin Fei-fan (right) and Chen Wei-ting

Taipei, March 31 (CNA) Sunday, March 30 saw the opening of a new chapter in Taiwan's rich history of student rallies as the Sunflower Student Movement reached what is likely to be its peak.

Official figures from police say that 116,000 people attended the rally that packed streets leading from the Presidential Office, while organizers claimed that as many as half a million people showed up.

Regardless of the numbers, Sunday's events have certainly shown how student leaders Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting have captured the hearts and minds of not only the nation's students, but many other members of the public, too.

As reported in the Chinese-language United Daily News, a defining moment came in the afternoon as Lin made his way to the stage to address the awaiting crowd, when a group of middle-aged women broke through to get a glance of the young leader -- still only 25 years old.

"We love you!" they shouted, as he weaved through a crowd of reporters, almost like a celebrity. "Run for president!" yelled others.

Lin and the others who have organized the movement that includes the occupation of the nation's parliament since March 18 are clearly no strangers to the world of civic movements, but until this month, they were little known outside of their circle of activists.

Today, the boy who grew up in the southern city of Tainan has become a full-blown political activist and can be called the face of the Sunflower Student Movement.

In 2008, Lin joined the Wild Strawberries Movement that arose in response to police suppressing the showing of the Republic of China (Taiwan) flag during a groundbreaking visit from China's top negotiator. He became the convener of a student group aimed at closely monitoring the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed in 2010.

Lin's name is now familiar to any student or media worker who has been following the protests against the cross-Taiwan Strait trade-in-services agreement at home and abroad.

The celebrity of his now iconic green jacket is matched only by that of his composed disposition and propensity for expressions that tug at the heartstrings of anyone listening.

Words like "peoples' hero" and "charismatic" have been attached to the young man, a graduate student at National Taiwan University, and he has been characterized as the more level-headed of the two outspoken student leaders of the movement also being called the 318 Student Movement.

His willingness to speak to the media regularly has resulted in more media attention on Lin, whose father is a devoted supporter of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and a campaigner for Taiwanese independence, than on his partner and fellow activist Chen Wei-ting.

Lin is now certainly the better-known of the two -- but this wasn't always the case.

Prior to the start of the Sunflower Student Movement that led to the ongoing occupation of the Legislative Yuan, Miaoli-born Chen had already made a name for himself by participating in a number of student and civic movements.

The 23-year-old graduate student from National Tsing Hua University shot to national fame -- or infamy -- during the anti-media monopoly movement, when in December 2012, he accused Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling of being a liar and hypocrite in his face.

And in September 2013, Chen hit Miaoli County Magistrate Liu Cheng-hung with a flying shoe to express his anger over the demolition of homes in the county's Dapu community to make way for a development project.

All in all, Chen has been involved in more than half a dozen protests for various causes.

Chen, who grew up without a father and lost his mother at the age of 13, was raised by his uncle. He is portrayed by most as being more strong-handed and more daring than Lin -- a true activist in every sense of the word.

Many consider Chen's off-the-cuff way of speaking impolite in a society still subject to Confucian values of respect for elders. This was evident when Premier Jiang Yi-huah went to see protesting students outside the Legislature.

Chen could be heard yelling into the microphone, cutting off Jiang's remarks to the students, shouting, "We're not here to listen to you talk about your feelings!"

The Liberty Times quoted one of Chen's university friends as calling him "a hotheaded fool." However, some argue that it is exactly this quality that makes him the activist he is -- brave and straightforward, or, as some call him, "inappropriate" and "impolite."

Chen's and Lin's approaches draw a stark contrast, but in their common goal of pushing against the services pact, they have come a long way together.

The two have been linked to the DPP in both their politics and sentiments, including deep suspicions of China's intentions.

The DPP has openly expressed its support for the protest movement, but former DPP Chairwoman Tasi Ing-wen played down the student leaders' connection to her party.

They are thinking independently and "cannot be manipulated by political forces," she insisted.

Whatever the case, Lin and Chen are leading one of the biggest student movements Taiwan has ever seen -- and it seems it's not over yet.

(By John Scot Feng)
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(Click here for the latest on the ongoing protest and developments since the Legislature occupation starting March 18.)