It is difficult to imagine how one could not have been moved by the thousands of young people who gathered on Saturday last week, armed with determination, humor, wit and a cornucopia of effigies, placards, banners and costumes, to protest against what they fear is the eventual emergence of a “media monster” should the Want Want China Times Group be allowed to expand its empire.
Although calculating turnout is never an exact science, it is fair to say that the crowd, made up almost entirely of young people, numbered in the thousands and was substantially larger than the organizers — journalist associations, student organizations and various civic groups — had expected.
In the days prior to the protest, held to coincide with Reporters’ Day, young Taiwanese launched sustained efforts online to mobilize like-minded individuals and encourage them to turn up for the protest. From videos teaching warm-up exercises and protest slogans to messages reminding people to avoid violence and not to litter, organizers of all stripes once again exhibited an uncanny ability to turn modern media to their advantage.
In many ways, this was reminiscent of the Wild Strawberry Movement’s use of Web casts in 2008 and 2009 to bring their protests against the Parade and Assembly Act (集會遊行法), which they deemed “unconstitutional,” to the world.
There is no hiding the fact that today’s young Taiwanese have a rather regretful reputation for not involving themselves enough in politics. It is often said that they care more about video games, KTV or dating (or heaven forbid, their schoolwork) than the fate of their country and its democracy. Judging from the usual composition of the crowds that turn up at large protests, such criticism would appear to be justified.
Confronted by such accusations, young Taiwanese will usually respond by stating their aversion to party politics, which they regard as a hodgepodge of cronies and cynics bickering not for the sake of the country, but rather for their own selfish interests. They will also point out that the majority of protests have been hijacked by the major political parties, turning perfectly legitimate expressions of dissatisfaction into mere electioneering opportunities.
This is not to say that today’s youth is unmoved by what’s going on around them, or that they will not act when their interests — and the issues that matter to them — are threatened.
Last week’s protest, the largest turnout of young people, it must be said, in 22 years, was evidence that young people can and will act, but will do so only when they are confident enough that by participating they will not become tools for politicians. One of the main reasons why the young turnout was so high was the organizers’ insistence that political parties not take over the protest or bring the usual party flags and paraphernalia, a request that was respected. (Former premier Yu Shi-kyun (游錫堃) of the Democratic Progressive Party and Lin Huo-wang (林火旺), a former adviser to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), were present, but kept a low profile and showed that when it matters, the green-blue divide can be transcended. One wonders if only young people have what it takes to make politicians work together rather than tirelessly snipe at one another, to the detriment of this country.)
The protest, added to the hundreds of young Taiwanese who mobilized in London and on the Internet during the Olympics this summer to protest against the removal, following pressure from China, of a Republic of China flag, gives us reason for hope. After all, the future of this nation depends on its youth, and its future leaders will also emerge from this generation. The world they inhabit will be a consequence both of what the current leaders make of it and of youth’s ability to shape its development.
Now, some people, usually those who complain about the lack of political participation by young people, will argue that student protesters are somewhat “naive” if they think they can bring about change without the legitimization that only political parties can provide, or adopt strategies that reflect those that have prevailed in past decades. Some have already argued that the protest will likely not have any impact on the National Communications Commission’s (NCC) ruling on the Want Want bid for China Network Systems’ cable TV stations, to which we could shoot back: How more successful have the much larger, opposition party-led protests held in the past four years in dissuading the Ma administration from embarking on a set of policies that, in their view, endangers Taiwan’s sovereignty and way of life?
Young people know which issues matter to them, and the reason why issues of social justice, rather than politics, are closer to their heart stems partly from the conscious decision by the previous generation — their parents’ generation — to avoid discussing politics, either out of fear following decades of White Terror, or because the subject is so painfully divisive.
That said, rather than confront politics head on, in most cases social justice — from the seizing of farmers’ land by the state to the destruction of residences by municipal authorities, or young people’s inability to find good jobs or to buy a house after graduation — is related to politics.
Not only that, but it is becoming increasingly evident that social justice in Taiwan will be affected by the political decisions made by Taiwanese government officials, especially on the issue of Taiwan’s future and relations with China, which have direct ramifications for freedom of speech and treatment of minorities. At some point — and we may be on the verge of an awakening — young people will realize the immensity of the challenges that lie ahead, and that if they do not take action, decisions will be made in their name that risk compromising their future.
To the young Taiwanese who dedicated time and energy organizing the Sept. 1 protest and who spent hours on a beautiful day earnestly assuming their civic responsibilities rather than, say, play video games: Do not ever listen to those who would discourage you from acting again, or who show disdain for what you have accomplished. Usually, such criticism comes from a misunderstanding of what matters to you, or from individuals who fear they will become irrelevant if they pass the baton to the next generation. Your actions were a sign of maturity, not naivety, and the significance of what you accomplished has been noted by supporters and opponents alike.
Moreover, success will be measured by much more than whether the NCC approves the deal or not, but by how you continue the fight. For one thing is certain: The battle for one’s rights, and ultimately for the future of this wonderful nation, is a long one, one that must be sustained and waged on many fronts.
Armed with the knowledge of what is important to you and with tremendously empowering skills and tools at your disposal and by harnessing modern technology, you can have a long-lasting impact on those around you and those who will come after you.
Decades ago, when freedom seemed but an elusive dream amid the darkness of authoritarianism, people with dreams and aspirations just as big and honorable as yours, people of a similar age, defied power and ultimately prevailed. You are no less empowered, and arguably more so today. However, the challenge is as formidable. It’s up to you to decide how, when and where to confront it.
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.
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