Written by Mark Wenyi Lai.
Youths in yellow vests light fires on the streets of Paris to protest incumbent President Emmanuel Macron. Youths in black shirts launch guerrilla-style battles against the government of Hong Kong. From Chile, Barcelona, India, and Russia to Baghdad, angry young people around the world share a single goal—to call for change.
However, before the presidential election in Taiwan, young voters took to the streets and social media in passionate support of the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen and her ongoing policies. Given that Tsai has already served as President for four years, Chairman of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for 10 years, and various top posts in the central government since 1986, for what change are youths calling?
Taiwanese youths tend to be good kids. Life is easier if you comply with those in power. But this is not a satisfying answer to our question. Throughout history, young activists in Taiwan have never succumbed to the authority of violent governments. In 1914, the Japanese Colonial Government executed anti-Japan revolutionary Luo Fuxing 羅福星 by hanging. He was 28 years old. In 1927, Xie Xuehong 謝雪紅 joined the Chinese Communist Party and launched the first Bolshevik riot in Taiwan. She was only 26 years old. Xie then waged a guerrilla war against the brutal KMT army during the 228 massacres. In 1964, Shih Ming-teh 施明德 was sentenced to life imprisonment because he formed a Taiwan independence study group within the army. The KMT tortured him, bringing about permanent health problems. All these activists came from wealthy families, so it would be foolish to regard Taiwan’s current youths as weak simply because this generation enjoys an unprecedented high standard of living.
There is a second, more likely explanation. Taiwanese youths are still brave. They set their eyes on Beijing, the larger target outside of Taiwan that is nevertheless the real dominating authority of Taiwan’s public policy and economic life. Thus these youths are fighting the die-hard enemy of Taiwanese people – China.
Before the election, various public opinion polls showed that Tsai was favoured by more than 60% of the younger generation aged between 20 and 39, whereas her opponent Han Kuo-yu polled at only 20%. After the election, we can conclude that young voters secured the victory for the DPP in presidential, legislative and party tickets. Why was Tsai so popular among the young generation? Some point out that Tsai paid extra attention to new media, which attracted mostly the younger generation. But for years Tsai’s image was more moderated, modest, and even dull. The real superstar in the young internet sphere was Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je, who was the most popular political figure among elementary school pupils and reaped more than 80% of support among those aged under 30. It is possible that young voters shifted their support from Ko to Tsai, but still the question remains, why?
The rise of Han Kuo-yu in 2018 was attributed partly to his surprise hit midnight live streaming show. He was energetic, charismatic, and humorous. In theory, Han had a better chance to charm the cyber generation than Tsai did. But some believed that young people in Taiwan fervently favoured Tsai’s progressive policies on LGBT rights. According to the polls, more than 70% of citizens aged under 30 supported the bill legalising same-sex marriage, which Tsai supported despite criticism from within her own party. But was this single policy agenda enough to motivate so many young Taiwanese to travel home to vote that it created more travel on one day than any other single day in 2019? Moreover, same-sex marriage was legalised in May 2019. If this legislation was the only factor at work, why would youths re-elect Tsai for a past deed?
The primary reason that the younger generation preferred Tsai was because she campaigned on an anti-China stance and pressed the issue harder than anyone else. Tsai repeatedly expressed support for the Hong Kong protests. She increased purchases of military equipment from the US and actively joined its new China containment policy. She called for international support of minorities in Tibet and Xinjiang. She personally met with survivors of 1989 Tiananmen massacre. She proposed to Japan a top summit on security and defence issues. It seemed like Tsai had a checklist of how to anger Beijing and ticked off each item with joy. So Taiwan’s youths heard Tsai’s clear and loud anti-China voice, and they supported Tsai as an ally of Taiwan.
So why did young Taiwanese vote against China? 400,000 Taiwanese work in China and 6 million travel to China every year. 40% of Taiwan’s foreign trade relies on China. With the same language environment and a growing economy, China should be a land of opportunities for young Taiwanese. Cross-Strait relations and Beijing’s unification rhetoric has not changed for years, so why did youths suddenly agitate for an anti-China agenda? Some have proposed answers such as the Hong Kong issue, the US and China row and Xi’s tough talk on Taiwan, but these still cannot explain the Taiwan’s overwhelming and generational change of heart.
History shows Taiwanese youths had great vision. Luo Fuxing was Taiwanese but also a Chinese nationalist. He fought to death to expel the Japanese colonial forces and liberate Taiwan. Luo also participated in the Guangzhou uprising against the Qing Dynasty. Xie Xuehong was a communist and also a Taiwanese nationalist. She struggled against poverty and was compassionate towards the poor. She devoted her life to the proletarian revolution by fighting Japan, the KMT, and the Chinese Communist Party. Shih Ming-teh is a Taiwanese nationalist and fighter for democracy. After his 26 years in jail, five years on hunger strike, he then led the DDP against the KMT in the 1990s elections. He also led a large-scale protest against the DPP President Chen Shui-bian. Shih fought for values, not for power or money.
So what is the great vision of today’s young voters? Lo, Xie and Shih all loved Taiwan, just as youths express now on social media. But Lo, Xie, and Shih were not satisfied with the status quo; they marched in pursuit of a higher cause. Young Taiwanese have every right to distance with China and to protect Taiwan’s achievement of democracy, independence, and prosperity. But they do need to figure out what great vision they are pursuing, what change they seek after this predictable and over-praised election.
Mark Wenyi Lai is Associate Professor, Chairperson of the Department of International Affairs, Wenzao Ursuline University of Languages, Taiwan. He published articles focusing on Cross-Strait relations, American foreign policy and international political economy.