The Wild Lily student movement of March 1990 is a shared memory for a generation of Taiwanese born in the 1960s.
During that time, about 5,000 students “occupied” the square in front of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and presented the government with four main demands: to dissolve the National Assembly, to abolish the Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of the Communist Rebellion (動員戡亂時期臨時條款), to hold a national affairs conference and to set a timetable for political and economic changes.
However, the movement took place not long after martial law ended in July 1987, and there were still many people who had not caught up with the times. Students were accused of “not attending classes as they should” and of being “rioters,” “decadent youth,” “Taiwanese independence supporters,” “professional students” and so on. They included repeated calls from within the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) to suppress the movement.
As it turned out, then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) chose to engage in dialogue with the students. He suggested that each university should appoint one representative to go into the Presidential Office. A video of the dialogues was recorded and broadcast on the square.
I remember sitting there and watching Lee on the screen as he said: “I agree with your ideas, but our country is ruled by law. A lot of these things can only be done by amending laws or even amending the Constitution. That will take time, so please give me some time and I promise to get them done.” (I cannot find his original words, but this is the gist of what he said, as I remember it.)
After watching the broadcast, the first thought that crossed my mind was: “It is time to go home.”
That evening our small group of Tunghai University students, who had come up from Taichung, decided to go home. There were no trains or buses at that time of night, so we went to the Yoshinoya Japanese-style fast food restaurant on Guanqian Road, near Taipei New Park — or what is now the 228 Peace Memorial Park — where we each ordered a bowl of beef with rice and, when we had finished, slept through the night in the restaurant, resting our heads on the tables.
Although Taiwan’s democracy developed in fits and starts, it blossomed and bore fruit in the end. Apart from a handful of people who got into politics and continued the struggle, most of those “angry young people” went back to school, where they went on studying, or goofing off, whichever was the case.
Later on, they married, had children and got on with their jobs and careers. Three decades later, they are all well into middle age. As for the people who criticized them back in the day, they are also enjoying the fruits of democracy.
During the past few months in Hong Kong, online comments from time to time call Hong Kongers “rioters” or “thugs,” and accuse them of “causing havoc in Hong Kong” and “wrecking the economy.”
Considering what we went through, it pains me to see such comments. Unless they are pushed into a corner, what people would want to take to the streets again and again, scorched by the sun and braving tear gas, getting beaten and kicked and arrested?
It brings to mind that evening when I arrived in Taipei in March 1990, and I crossed the police cordon and squeezed through a gap in the barbed wire and, as I walked past a military policeman on guard duty, I heard a quiet voice say: “Keep it up, but stay safe.”