How a publisher helped set stage for Taiwan’s Sunflower protest movement

Rex How resigned as an adviser to Ma Ying-jeou, choosing instead to become a protester

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      As Canadians gear up to choose a new government on September 20, many may think that casting a ballot is all there is to democracy.

      Although voting is a cornerstone of a representative system, elections are but one component of a democratic society.

      As Taiwanese publisher Rex How notes, democracy is not simply a political arrangement. It’s a way of life.

      “It’s a lifestyle,” How told the Straight via Zoom from Taipei, “and in this lifestyle, we have to know how to speak to each other. We should know each others’ interests, and then how to share and exchange them.”

      How, an author as well, shared his views in advance of his talk on September 4 as part of this year’s TAIWANFest celebration in Vancouver.

      He considers reading to be “so important to democacy, because the essence of what democracy is how do we speak ourselves and how we listen to others and understand each other”.

      How noted that he is a believer of John Dewey, an American political thinker and educator. In his 1916 book Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, Dewey wrote: “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.”

      In Dewey’s view, an “undesirable society” is “one which internally and externally sets up barriers to free intercourse and communication of experience”.

      This is why How believes that a well-read citizenry and a democratic society are vital to each other.

      “In every system opposite to democracy, the people in power want to control the souls of others, and the way to control the others’ souls is to let them know only a certain amount of knowledge,” he said.

      For How, reading is not only a means “to entertain ourselves or to expand our visions”. It should also spur action.

      How demonstrated this himself when he led Taiwanese publishers in opposing a 2013 trade deal that the Kuomintang government negotiated with China.

      He was at the time a national adviser to then–president Ma Ying-jeou on art, cultural, and social issues, a post he held starting in 2009.

      Known as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), the deal would have opened up investments from both sides in a wide array of industries, including publishing.

      How explained to the Straight that the publishing industry in China is not only bigger than that in Taiwan but the companies are all owned and controlled by the Communist government of China. He said the trade deal would have led to a major inroad into the Taiwanese publishing industry.

      “It’s very unfair because in Taiwan all the publishing houses are private companies, all the bookstores and distributors are independent, and there is not a single one that owns publishing and distribution and printing and bookstores,” How said.

      How recalled having explained the situation to the Taiwanese president at the time. When the leader refused to listen, the publisher began to speak out publicly. He organized forums and public events.

      “The final way is I have to resign and I have to be a protester,” said How, who stepped down as adviser in 2013.

      How’s objection to the CSSTA was one of many acts of resistance that led to the Sunflower Student Movement of 2014.

      In that year, students and allied civic groups occupied Taiwan’s parliament for weeks and mobilized popular opposition against closer economic integration with China, which considers the island country as a wayward province.

      Protesters occupied Taiwan's legislature during the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014.

      The trade deal was not ratified by the legislative assembly. About two years later, in 2016, the Kuomintang party was defeated in a general election.

      The Democratic Progressive Party took over, and its first female leader, Tsai Ing-wen, became president of the country. Tsai and the DPP won reelection in 2020.

      By his act of courage, How showed that he had learned well from another author he mentioned during the interview. That was Englishman John Ruskin, who was also an artist, art critic, philosopher, and social reformer during the Victorian era.

      During his time, Ruskin spoke and wrote about the ills of society. His book on political economy, Unto This Last, later inspired a young Indian lawyer named Mahatma Gandhi.

      Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy famously said about Ruskin: “He was one of those rare men who think with their hearts, and so he thought and said not only what he himself had seen and felt, but what everyone will think and say in the future.”

      How wants to live this way, by following a moral imperative and doing what he believes is right.

      “I cannot be silenced,” How said. “I have to speak out.”