What's Driving the New Generation
The sight of students storming government buildings shocked many Taiwanese. Where did all these angry young people come from? To understand their outrage, we must look at Taiwan from their perspective.
What's Driving the New GenerationBy Dennis Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 544 )
March 18 to 24 was an extremely weighty week for Taiwan.
Many people were shocked at the images they saw on their television screens – shocked at the charged spectacle of students overtaking and occupying the Legislative Yuan and storming the Executive Yuan. They likely thought, aren't Taiwan's university students preoccupied with little everyday pleasures? Where did all these angry young people come from?
Understanding This Generation – Four Aspects
Given the vast complexity of the Cross-strait Agreement on Trade in Services spanning abstruse aspects of economics, trade, law, and cross-strait politics, how could it have ignited such strong sentiment among tens of thousands of students that they would be prepared to set aside their studies and families to become involved in such a prolonged sit-in?
To understand these young people's outrage, it is necessary to take a new look at Taiwan from the perspective of this generation.
First, this generation of university students began school and first started learning about the world around the year 2000, just when the ruling Kuomintang party (KMT) relinquished executive power to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for the first time. In other words, they have witnessed the steady decay of Taiwanese politics under the banner of "democracy," unfolding in slow motion before their eyes over their formative years, coinciding with the combined four terms of presidents Chen Shui-Bian and Ma Ying-Jeou.
Thirty years ago, we found hope in the rise of a political opposition movement. We were inspired when the ruling party handed over power to the opposition, and when power was handed back in subsequent elections. But since the DPP has progressively become more like the KMT and presidents Chen and Ma have shattered hopes and expectations, the young generation no longer has political idols or political burdens, and has nothing to cast their hopes on. No, they must forge their own hopes.
Second, over roughly the same period Taiwan's industry stagnated, employment conditions and opportunities worsened, and wages regressed, while real estate seemingly remained the only sector showing any clear growth. The gap between the wealthy and the poor widened, tax burdens became increasingly inequitable, the national healthcare plan and other social safety nets reached the brink of collapse, and they witnessed the coming of the first "Rich Dad, Poor Son" generation in Taiwan since World War II. Given the inequitable distribution of social resources, along with the future burden of growing national debt and public spending, a stifling helplessness greets them.
Third, social issues have exploded to the forefront one after the other. Politics have been liberalized on the surface in Taiwan, yet from the central government to the local level the stranglehold on resources and the pull of interests held by conservative groups have never relaxed – becoming even greater in some respects. Conflicts flare up and scatter around over land use, the environment, labor, agriculture, living conditions, immigrants, human rights for the underprivileged, historical preservation, the ecology, and the topic of energy centered on the fourth nuclear power plant. Those in power usually stand with vested interests, ignoring the sentiments of the majority, or distorting and suppressing public opinion.
Fourth, at the same time I see the capacity for action in this generation of young people. Having grown up with the Internet, they pool information and hone their skills on social networking platforms. One social issue after another, they gather force and set their agenda, practicing loose organizational operation, remote coordination, and open collaboration.
Today's Rage and Tomorrow's Sorrows
The inattention of most mainstream media concerns to public issues has led them to work out a two-pronged approach, whereby they "broadcast their beliefs within social movements, and expand social movements within their broadcasts." Over the past decade, far more college students have thought about and gotten involved in public issues than did the previous generation of students.
The angry university students we see before us grew up under a climate of rotten politics, stifling economics, and social injustice. They have seen a lot of ugly lies, impotent moaning, and cowardly cynicism. Angry, they dare to get involved, yet adults call them "rude" and tell them to "go back to school and hit the books." But back at school all they see is the president, legislators, county magistrates and the media out there willfully making a mess of everything.
The cross-strait service trade agreement happened to touch a nerve with this group of young people: the careless and jumbled handling of major policy matters, arrogance and lack of communication of government agencies, blatant favoritism toward big conglomerates and inattention to weaker industries, growing economic dependence on China, the failure of political parties to counterbalance each other, the dominance of executive power, and the favoring of party will over popular will. The compounding of these political, economic and social issues has brought a collective scream from these twentysomethings, and touched upon the frustration and skepticism towards the political landscape felt across society.
These students from such top national universities as National Taiwan University, National Cheng Kung University, National Tsinghua University, National Chiao Tung University, and National Chengchi University see the structural limitations of their future, the deep crises in Taiwanese society, and are no longer willing to submit themselves to the constraints of the establishment, preferring to protest passionately to call attention to the crisis of governance about to spin out of control.
March 18 to 24 was an incalculably weighty week, as well as an opportunity to take stock and begin anew. Like white blood cells, the university students gave society a fever, and helped us examine our ills.
The cavernous generation gap could also be a bridge across the social divide. Let us hope that, once the passion recedes, Taiwan will be able to look forward to a more courageous, brighter future.
(The author is a senior journalist.)
Translated from the Chinese by David Toman