Less than a year after Tank Man confronted the Chinese military on June 5, 1989, en route to suppress protests at Tiananmen Square, Taiwan embarked on their own mission to secure democracy for their country. On March 16, 1989, nine students from National Taiwan University staged a sit-in at what was then named the Chiang-Kai Shek Memorial Hall.
Within 24 hours, the square was filled with over 2000 other students and supporters who organized into committees and wrote four demands: to abolish the existing National Assembly and re-establish a new infrastructure based on democratic ideals; to nullify the Temporary Provisions against the Communist Rebellion; to host a National Affairs Conference; and to establish a timetable for their plans to reform.
The students of the Wild Lily Movement wore white Formosan lilies to symbolize democracy and freedom. In Taiwanese literature and philosophy, this flower is an icon of grace, resilience, fortitude of spirit, and simplicity. The students evoked a connection between these pure Taiwanese qualities and democracy when they adopted this as the symbol of their struggle.
In the few days to follow, the movement blossomed to include 20,000 protesters, and within six days, the newly-selected President Lee Teng-Hui agreed to accomplish the organizers’ demands. The movement became known as the Wild Lily Student Movement and every year, supporters gather on March 21 to commemorate the history of solidarity, and of the ability of youth to transform their institutions and their culture.
In 1996, six years after the Wild Lily demonstration, President Lee Teng-hui became Taiwan’s first popularly elected leader. In 2007, the square was rededicated as Liberty Square. The character inscriptions over the archway further separate Taiwan from its relationship from imperial China. The characters are left-to-right as practiced in modern Taiwan, instead of the right-to-left order of ancient China, as written on the previous archway. Since its re-dedication, the square has staged multiple demonstrations, including the Wild Strawberry Student Movement.
Tensions between China and Taiwan continue to be tense, although the connection between Taiwan and the US is strong and healthy. In the month before the global pandemic escalated in the United States, the Trump Administration was deepening its relationship with Taiwan through multiple arms deals and plans for a $250 million embassy in Taipei. Polls suggest that Taiwanese support closer economic ties with the US than with China. Maybe if the Trump administration asks nicely, Taiwan will help it make effective leadership decisions regarding the losing battle with COVID-19 in the US.