Demand for Generational Justice and the 2020 Taiwan Presidential Election

Written by Tanguy Lepesant.

Image credit: Sunflower student movement in Taiwan by Artemas Liu/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

During the 2016 election campaign, Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) emphasised “generational justice” in order to both criticise Ma Ying-jeou’s economic policies and attract youth votes. The DPP highlighted stagnant low wages, poor working conditions, and pressure from free trade agreements with China on Taiwan’s democratic system. These campaigns resonated with youths already participating in large scale social movements such as the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement. Studies show that Taiwanese youths believe their quality of life as adults will be worse than their parents‘ and that they are victims of “generational injustice”. They believe they have been deprived of their “right to a good quality of life” by their elders whom benefited from Taiwan’s economic miracle and accumulated wealth at the expense of environmental protection. They believe these elders have unjustly monopolise power over all decision-making processes through a strictly age-based vertical hierarchy.

Taiwanese under 40 constitute roughly one third of the entire electorate and are mostly swing voters. They will again be a key factor in the 11 January 2020 presidential election. Youth voters were crucial to Tsai Ing-wen’s 2016 victory but then have shown signs of disappointment since then deserted the DPP during the November 2018 local elections. Yet, voters under 40 contributed significantly to Tsai’s victory over Lai Ching-te in the DPP primary, showing that she has not completely lost her political appeal. The role of youth voters in the upcoming election is still uncertain, but a generational analysis can help us understand this highly volatile context.

Surveys and interviews I conducted during the past fifteen years show the existence of a specific “post-democratic reforms generation” born after 1980. In terms of socio-political values and positions, the generation can be schematically portrayed following its “red lines”, “distrusts” and “concerns”. The red lines are non-negotiable aspects of young Taiwanese lives and selves: identification with the democratic system of a sovereign Taiwan distinct from China; the defence of core values deriving from human rights that tend to make them more progressive than their parents and grandparents; and the rejection of “political polarisation” based mainly on ethnic division and conflicts between older generations of waishengren (mainlanders) and bendiren (locals). Consequently these youths are averse to both ends of the political spectrum that promote either unification with China or radical ethnic Taiwanese nationalism. Facing mounting Chinese pressure, they favour a status quo defined as the defence of a de facto sovereign and independent Taiwan.

“Distrust” is mainly directed at traditional media and major political parties which translates into weak party identification. Youths also worry about two different forces threatening Taiwan: Chinese pressure on freedom and democracy, and environmental threats. These threats, combined with a variety of poor economic conditions, incentivise young Taiwanese to consider moving abroad. However, most say that if Taiwan could offer good living conditions, they would choose to stay.

This rough outline of young Taiwanese citizens’ socio-political values and positions gives insights into why Tsai won the DPP primary by a margin of about 20% among people under 39. Tsai Ing-wen earned some credit as a determined leader and protector of Taiwan’s democracy by firmly rejecting Xi Jinping’s January 2019 speech on Taiwan’s future and the “One Country, Two Systems” formula. This issue is particularly salient with young people, especially since Hong Kong’s anti-extradition law protests began the day before the DPP primary’s opinion polls opened. Tsai is also seen as more moderate and cautious in her approach of cross-Strait relations than her former premier, Lai Ching-te. Lai presented a more local, pro-business, and old guard/radical independentism image, whereas Tsai (re)built the image of a firm national leader benefiting from a strong international approval. The passage of the same-sex marriage bill – after two years of delays – and changing international contexts have helped Tsai to shed the image of a passive leader.

Nevertheless, many youths still believe Tsai did not deliver on her promise to improve prospective living conditions. They argue her position on balancing economic development and environmental protection is unclear. Even reforms intended to support generational justice, such as the pension and labour reform, are perceived as too chaotic to be understandable or beneficial. This explains why Tsai’s approval rating among 20-39 year old voters still lags behind Taipei mayor and potential independent presidential candidate Ko Wen-je.

With the help of a young team and deep engagement with social media Ko has built the image of an unconventional “non-politician” who evolved outside of the political establishment and is not afraid to speak his mind. Ko cultivates his specificity by criticising both KMT and DPP, and avoiding the independence versus unification debate to present himself as a pragmatic person who “solves problems”. For the moment, it has worked pretty well among the youth who helped his re-election in November 2018.However, this position will be much more difficult to defend in a presidential campaign, especially with the hardening of Taiwan’s position as a sovereign democracy under threat from China.

Taiwan’s evolving geopolitical position and relationship with China means that Kaohsiung mayor and KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu will also have great difficulties wining the youth vote. Han’s meetings as mayor with Chinese officials in Hong Kong, his plan to create a Free Economic Pilot Zone to deepen economic integration with China, and his apparent ignorance of the June 9 anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong have undoubtedly cast him as the most pro-Beijing candidate. Han also received extensive support from Want Want China Times group’s chairman Tsai Eng-meng and his pro-Beijing media outlets. Young people who generally agree to label these media outlets “red media” also tend to view Han as a “pan-red” candidate who works to facilitate Beijing’s infiltration of Taiwan. Since he became mayor, his inconsistency has been the target of many powerful youth criticisms, some of which went viral. One of the most famous was when 26 year old Kaohsiung city councillor Huang Jie grilled Han about the details of his project to open a Free Economic Pilot Zone in the city. Han could not answer any of Huang Jie’s questions, instead repeating that he would “make Kaohsiung rich”. Han’s pro-Beijing attitude and carelessness combined with his populist style has elicited a deep distrust among the youth. Very few youths attend “Han fans” weekend rallies; whereas youths were the majority of the tens of thousands braving the rain to join the 23 June protest against pro-Beijing “red media”.

These are only the preliminary elements of a more in-depth generational analysis of the 2020 presidential campaign. I argue that in absence of a real left-right debate to structure Taiwan’s political arena, and with the weakening of ethnic divisions among people under 40, generational differences in socio-political values and positions might be one of the most relevant factors to better understand Taiwan’s political landscape and this presidential campaign in particular.

Tanguy Lepesant is an associate researcher at the CEFC and an associate professor at National Central University (Taiwan). His research interests have been mostly focused on Taiwanese youth socialization process, identity and political behaviour with a recent emphasis on environmental issues.

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