Tue, Oct 28, 2008 - Page 8 News List

Wanted: angrier Taiwanese youth

By J. Michael Cole 寇謐將

Political scientists — and in fact history itself — tell us that in most countries, violence stems from disenfranchised or disillusioned youth who are oftentimes educated and unemployed. This is why countries like Iran, where more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30, are of concern for the stability of the state and the region. Young people are often behind attacks on public property, acts of civil disobedience and demonstrations, as seen at the numerous demonstrations held worldwide in recent years targeting globalization, the G8 and the IMF, to name a few.

Conversely, older people are often portrayed as wiser and less prone to senseless violence, traits that are associated with the experience that comes with age. This view also dovetails with the construct of government as the “parent figure,” while the disgruntled masses are the “children” who must be brought into line.

Ironically, Taiwan bucks that trend. In a country of 23 million people, which faces a threat to its existence from the Chinese military about 150km across the Taiwan Strait, it is the older generation, those 45 and above, who take to the street, slap each other in the legislature or push and shove at public events — altercations that more often than not verge on the farcical. It wasn’t a rebellious 20-year-old who assaulted lawyer Wellington Koo (顧立雄) in August 2006, former representative to Japan Koh Se-kai (�?�) in June and former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in July. Rather, the perpetrator, Su An-sheng (蘇安生), a member of the pro-unification Patriot Association (愛國同心會), is 65.

The handful of protesters who “attacked” China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Vice Chairman Zhang Mingqing (張銘清) during a visit to the Confucius temple in Tainan last week were not youth on a rampage. The incident involved, in the words of Kyodo news agency’s Max Hirsch, “an elderly woman [who] swung feebly at the vehicle with her yellowed crutch.”

So what’s going on with Taiwan? Why does it not fit the model of violent youth and peaceful, or at least milder, elderly? Why are pictures of political demonstrations filled with old people who should probably be watching the rallies from the comfort of their home, while young people are conspicuous by their absence?

The reason is well beyond Taiwan’s alarmingly low birth rate or aging population. Rather, it is a direct consequence of Taiwanese youth being altogether — and dangerously — apolitical. Part of the problem lies in the fact that they were born around the time Taiwan was undergoing its “economic miracle,” which in a matter of a decade or two propelled the developing country into a regional powerhouse. As a result, a majority of Taiwanese youth today, the so-called “strawberry generation” born between 1981 and 1991, never knew hardship or hard physical labor.

Another reason has its roots in Taiwan’s idiosyncratic history: the crushing authoritarianism of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government under dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). Taiwan’s youth are too young to have been around during the 228 Incident, the White Terror, Martial Law and the Kaohsiung Incident, the system of fear that obtained in Taiwan from 1949 until the end of the 1980s, with tens of thousands of deaths, disappearances and cases of torture under the Chiangs’ police state, when people did not even dare discuss the matter among themselves, lest they be arrested or their livelihood be compromised by forced closures by the state.

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