Attracting youth to politics in Taiwan

by on Monday, 06 September 2010 Comments

The old cliché has it that a nation's future will be determined by its youth. If that holds true, then Taiwan had best start hooking its young on politics now. The problem is that Taiwan currently holds the lowest birthrate in the world and, much like Japan, faces the prospect of a future in which much of the population will be elderly, leaving very few of the dwindling younger generation to, among other things, run for political office and guide their country into this early stage of the new millennium. In fact, according to the most recent statistics released by Taiwan’s Council for Economic Planning and Development, Taiwan’s population will stop growing and start falling in 2022, four years earlier than had previously been predicted in 2008.

This is coupled with the fact that Taiwan is in a uniquely precarious political position. The country, which has been governed separately from China since Chiang Kai-shek evacuated the KMT government to Taiwan after losing the civil war with the communists in 1949, claims sovereignty which is vehemently refuted by China and recognized by only a handful of marginalized nations scattered around Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Statements from the Chinese government routinely make reference to the eventual reunification of Taiwan and China, while the U.S. and Taiwan are bound to the status quo, in which Taiwan governs itself, but makes no strong movements toward formally declared independence from China.

Reports abound in the media that economic and political ties between Taiwan and China continue to grow warmer under the watchful eye of President Ma Ying-jeou of the pro-unification KMT party. This was supposedly exemplified by the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in July, a free trade agreement that, among other concessions in regard to banking and investment, will see tariffs on a wide array of Taiwanese and Chinese goods fall or be eliminated altogether. But the fact remains that China continues to point an ever increasing amount of missiles at its neighbor to the west, with that number expected to hit just under 2,000, up from an estimated 1,600, by the end of the year.

Despite this obvious threat, Taiwanese youth aren't exactly chomping at the bit to get involved in political activities or learn about the pertinent issues facing Taiwan. This could pose some big problems for Taiwan in the not-so-distant future. So, what's the best way to get them interested in political matters?

Enter Freddy Lim, an advocate of an independent Taiwan, front man for Taiwan's most well-known metal band, Chthonic, and one of the leaders of GUTS United, an organization composed of artists, musicians, and movie industry figures that strives to get Taiwanese youth to care about Taiwan's political future. Founded in 2002, the group began by organizing concerts surrounding political or social issues, and during the 2008 presidential campaign became more active in attempting to mobilize the young voters of today as well as the voters of tomorrow.

Lim would like to mimic the modern western method of appealing to the young generation through soft means such as music, movies, and fashion. However, living in Taipei, one of the world’s most wired cities, he is wary of the growing contemporary trend of “slacktivism,” by which increasingly keyboard bound youth voice their support in the most passive way possible—at the click of a button.

“Now everybody does their movements on the Internet. I think that’s bullshit. It’s useless. If you really care about something, you should be there, not in front of your computer,” he says while seated at a table at The Wall, a live music venue in Taipei which he is part owner of.

Though appealing to youth via the web will obviously play a large role in attracting the Net generation, Lim is aware of the need for personal contact and interaction in bringing young people into the political fold and helping them understand the relevant issues surrounding Taiwan and other regions that profess to be sovereign but are nevertheless claimed by China. This summer, he has organized politically-themed summer camps in which dozens of students have participated. He also brought notable political figures to Taiwan, such as Raela Tosh, daughter of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) leader Rebiya Kadeer, who came to Taiwan in July to attend a screening of a documentary, The 10 Conditions of Love, which focuses on her mother. Lim had also invited the elder Kadeer to come to Taipei and give a presentation on the plight of the Uyghur people in September of last year, but she was denied entry into Taiwan by the ruling KMT party.

Kadeer campaigns for the rights of China’s Uyghur people, a Muslim minority largely living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwest of the country. The area is rich in oil reserves, and is currently the nation’s top producer of natural gas. But the Chinese government’s main concern these days seems to be the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a separatist group that has made the American list of terrorist organizations. China has accused Kadeer of having connections to the group, a charge she denies, but the accusation alone was enough for the KMT government in Taiwan to deny Kadeer entry when she tried to come to the country. Kadeer is a former businesswoman and philanthropist who rose to become one of the richest people in China. But in 1999 she was accused by her government of endangering state security. Her crime was sending news clippings pertaining to the treatment of the Uyghur people to her husband in the U.S., even though they were widely available domestically. She spent six years in prison before being released and fleeing to the U.S., where she resides in Virginia, separated from some of her 11 children. Kadeer says her family members that remain in China, like many of the country’s most vociferous political activists, are often targeted for persecution. Two of her sons are currently imprisoned there for allegedly endangering state security.

How does Kadeer’s story and that of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region apply to Taiwan? Xinjiang, along with the Tibet Autonomous Regions, is a modern example of how the Communist Party handles its so-called “renegade provinces,” a label it has applied to Taiwan. China has made no secret of the fact that it remains open to using military force to reclaim Taiwan at any point in the future, and in those regions that hold the word “autonomous” as part of their name, the Chinese military contrarily maintains a strong, controlling presence. The Chinese government has also encouraged the migration of Han Chinese to both Xinjiang and Tibet as a means of further integrating these regions into its One China ideal.

Could this same scenario play out in Taiwan one day? That remains to be seen, but it is a possibility, however remote it may be at present. Taiwan has recently opened the door for a small number of Chinese students to study at Taiwanese universities, though these students will not be allowed to stay in Taiwan and work following the completion of their degrees. Still, this move represents a complete about face from the previous policy of banning Chinese students altogether, a ban deemed necessary to avoid the spread of Chinese governmental and ideological influence in Taiwan. Could this be a sign of future policies that will relax restrictions on the presence of citizens of China in Taiwan? Time will tell, but the admission of Chinese students, along with the fact that Taiwan is likely to lift a ban on individual Chinese tourists traveling within the country, is a sign that China could be wedging its foot in the door in what may become a protracted process of opening that door for larger and larger numbers of mainland Chinese to come to Taiwan, the effects of which Tibetans and Uyghurs alike can attest to.

And yet, the youth of Taiwan seem largely unmoved. This malaise persists despite the efforts of Lim and others to bring to light the risks involved in Taiwan cozying up to China both politically and economically. You can lead a teenager or twenty-something to the relevant information, but you can’t force them to give it more than a cursory glance, never mind become impassioned by it. Lim knows attracting youth to political issues is an uphill battle—one that is not unique to Taiwan.

“Globally, the young people don’t care too much about political things,” Lim laments. “They care more about their own lives, so they don’t pay much attention to serious political issues.”

According to Lim, the way to make politics accessible to youth is to make it fun, rather than boring and preachy, and unenviable task under the best of circumstances. He is always striving to find something that young people can relate to and enjoy, while imparting a basic message that they can latch onto.

“Cool music, cool movies, cool shirts can attract young people,” says Lim before offering an example. “Most of the Tibet protests in Taiwan can only get three or four hundred people. But [at] the Free Tibet concert there were more than 6,000 people. They may not get the idea at that day, but you just need them to get the most simple message and they will go back to search on the Net. That’s what you do, you give them an idea.”

J. Michael Cole, a former intelligence officer at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the current deputy news editor at the Taipei Times, and the author ofDemocracy in Peril, a book detailing the last 18 months of the Chen Shui-bian administration and the first year of the Ma Ying-jeou presidency, agrees with Taiwan independence activist and musician Freddy Lim that in order to get Taiwanese youth involved in political activities, the key to their hearts and minds lies in popular culture.

“I think Freddy is bang on, and I’ve actually been saying this for years. Art is definitely something that reaches out and appeals to younger people.”

Freddy-lim-gareth-griffiths2Cole is a veteran of several political protests, which he has attended both as a journalist and a spectator, over the past two years in Taiwan, and has seen the number of attendees slide considerably. He notes that when Chen Yunlin, chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), first visited Taiwan in 2008, half a million people took to the streets of Taipei to protest the presence of the Chinese official. Two years later, the ECFA protest in June barely managed to draw 50,000 people. Cole conducted a quick survey of the attendees, and the most common explanation for the drop seemed to be that people young and old in Taiwan are starting to feel that protests don’t make a difference, and even the diehard Lim said later that he didn’t really want to be there. But no matter what the number of people who have been at such protests is, people under 40 have been but a small minority.

“What really struck me was you look around and maybe 80, 85 percent of the participants are people in their late forties, fifties, sixties, seventies—some even in their eighties. If you’re lucky, you might see 15 percent of people like young adults, or children, or teenagers, who I suspect are there mostly because their parents are there rather than out of their own volition,” says Cole from across the table at a watering hole favored by the foreign correspondents in Taipei.

In Cole’s opinion, Taiwan’s rapid democratization and the relatively quick jump in the standard of living of Taiwanese in the past few decades has given rise to a generation that has no idea what it is like to live under an authoritarian regime, as their parents and grandparents do. Those who lived in Taiwan between 1949 and 1987 existed under what is known as the White Terror period, during which Taiwan was under martial law, and 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned, tortured, or executed by the KMT. Those who suffered at the hands of the KMT were labeled as “bandit spies,” and were accused of working for the Chinese communists. But on July 15th, 1987, the longest period of martial law in world history came to an end. All Taiwanese who were either infants at the time, or were born after that date, have no concept of what it was like to live under such oppression. All they have are the history books and the stories of this dark chapter in Taiwan’s past that their elders may or may not choose to share with them.

This knowledge and experiential gap between the current generation of young people and older Taiwanese could account for the noticeable lack of youth at political rallies and protests in Taiwan. Simply put, young people have little stake in the consequences of current political actions, for the time being at least. There is no authoritarian regime for them to speak out or rebel against and, for the most part, they live comfortable lives and enjoy the same freedoms as young people would in any of the world’s fully democratic countries. In other words, they have little to gain by becoming politically active, and little to lose by not doing so.

With that being said, they may find themselves with more to lose in the coming years if the ECFA doesn’t work out in Taiwan’s favor. It will likely take something such as this—something that directly impacts the young people of Taiwan—to get them to realize that their participation in the electoral process will have a direct effect on their own future and that of the nation at large. They may not have had a hand in bringing ECFA to the table, but perhaps, if it has negative repercussions for the people of Taiwan, young voters could play a part in rectifying the situation.

“If the ECFA goes wrong, and if it really starts hurting some industries, if it lowers Taiwan’s competitiveness, if it lowers their chances of getting good paying jobs in Taiwan because companies here can now hire cheaper labor from China, then Taiwanese old and young might become more engaged in politics and actually use electoral retribution to kick out a government that is actually hurting them,” speculates Cole.

Nevertheless, as China and Taiwan move closer together politically and economically, as is the current trend, Cole also believes that it could become more and more difficult for young Taiwanese to identify themselves as being overtly political. With the door open for Chinese investment in a growing number of sectors, including the media, those who are in favor of Taiwan independence, which currently represents approximately one in four Taiwanese, could find themselves having to choose between their political beliefs and their paycheck. Meanwhile, the nearly 58 percent of Taiwanese who support the current status quo could find themselves similarly compromised.

“What I fear is that those young Taiwanese who would like to become involved politically, they’re going to weigh their options and say, ‘If I decide to become very open with my political beliefs, this is going to have an impact on my career,’” says Cole.

Are there inherit dangers in this mode of thinking? Definitely, according to Cole, who points to the example of Hong Kong. Prior to the British handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, it has been widely documented that Beijing reached out to members of the business and industrial elite in Hong Kong. These elites, who had much to lose from a financial standpoint if the handover resulted in instability, were offered positions as consultants on government committees in an attempt to consolidate power and ensure that Hong Kong’s absorption back into China after 100 years of British colonial rule would go smoothly. Beijing’s current efforts to absorb Taiwan by offering a series of economic carrots could be referred to as a quiet takeover. Nevertheless, it could result in a similar situation playing out in Taiwan, in which the fiscal motives of the elite, or even just the working or middle class, play a key role in the nation’s political future.

“If you have tomorrow’s leaders focusing more on getting a job and stabilizing the economy and not rocking the boat than actually fighting for what their nation stands for, these are the elite that can easily be co-opted,” Cole elaborates. “Starting in the early or mid-eighties, the Chinese government already was working at co-opting the elite in Hong Kong to make sure that when the handover occurred, the transition would be very easy and in Beijing’s favor, which explains why even today you don’t have a fully democratic Hong Kong.”

If the Taiwanese youth are forced into such a delicate situation in which speaking out in support of their own freedom could put their livelihoods at risk, then who will be their voice on the world stage? Part of the responsibility may fall on young overseas Taiwanese not living in China’s looming shadow.

That’s where organizations such as the Formosan Association for Public Affairs Young Professional Group (FAPA YPG) come in. Ketty Chen is the media coordinator for FAPA YPG, a group consisting of Taiwanese Americans aged 18 to 35 that lobbies the U.S. Congress on the issue of Taiwan independence, and a political science professor at Austin College. She believes that, given the fact that Taiwanese Americans have little to fear when advocating Taiwanese sovereignty, they can be all the more vocal with little, if anything, in the way of personal or professional consequences hanging over their heads.

“First, geographically, Taiwanese Americans are able to enjoy the safety of distance while advocating for Taiwan,” Chen states via email. “Secondly, while Taiwanese Americans hold jobs in all kinds of industries in the US, I feel that the proportion of the Taiwanese American population affected by the economic integration between Taiwan and China is not as high as people in Taiwan.”

Despite all the obstacles they face, there are small groups of young people dedicated to spreading political awareness among young people in Taiwan. Sisters Yu-shan and Yu-ting Chang, aged 22 and 20 respectively, volunteer at GUTS United events around Taiwan, and were made aware of political issues by their parents from a young age. For Yu-shan, the low level of involvement of young people in political matters might simply come down to not knowing where to begin.

“Maybe they follow the news, but they don’t know what to do,” she says during an interview outside the Guting MRT station in Taipei on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The sisters are granting an interview before heading to a punk show at The Wall later that evening.

“They think it’s their duty to know what’s happening out there, but they don’t really care,” Yu-ting adds. “

Both Yu-shan and Yu-ting are of the opinion that the voting age in Taiwan, currently 20, should be lowered to 18, which, apart from some countries in the region such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore, is the age of suffrage in the vast majority of countries today. Those who can’t vote, according to Yu-shan, feel that they share no part of the responsibility for the future of their nation. The sisters are also in agreement that both the DPP and the KMT need to do better when it comes to appealing to Taiwanese youth and getting them to care about the future of Taiwan, rather than just paying lip service to those who will one day replace them.

“I think they pretend to like the young generation, but they don’t really take care of us,” says Yu-ting. “When they’re having a campaign they always want the young generation to stand up for them, but when doing real things, they still don’t really care about what the young generation is thinking.”

And therein could lie the heart of the problem.

(Freddy Lim's photos are courtesy of Gareth Griffiths)

Joe Henley

I'm a writer and editor based in Taipei, Taiwan.


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