In 2008 when the Wild Strawberries Movement was just starting, students were worried about being “painted green”; however, four years on, they are more mature and confident and are clear that they are utilizing politics rather than being used by politics.
During the 1960s in the West, student power was undermined to a certain degree by the mainstream media. Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and communications at Columbia University, said the positive initial reporting about the anti-war movement by US terrestrial television stations caused students to overestimate their power. However, as soon as the media reports turned negative, the more radical students found themselves in a situation where they faced opposition from both the government and the media.
Despite being constantly suppressed by mainstream media, the power of Taiwanese students has gotten stronger. The medium students rely on most heavily is Facebook. This online medium played a big role in the Arab Spring movement and it has now become the most effective channel for mobilizing student power.
When all is said and done, the reason why student power is effective and threatens traditional mores is students have the courage to ask two fundamental questions about modern Taiwanese society. One is about justice and the other is about the China factor.
As retired military personnel, civil servants and public-school teachers refuse to let go of the 18 percent preferential interest rate on their pension savings and their year-end relief bonuses, workers are facing a Labor Insurance Fund on the verge of bankruptcy, while starting salaries for young people keep on falling and social injustice spreads. By showing their support for those evicted from their homes or the unemployed, students have become the last line of defense for upholding justice and have become instrumental in avoiding further social disintegration.
Moreover, for young people, the China factor is no longer a rhetorical military threat; it has entered right into the psyche of Taiwanese society. When police resort to confiscating the Republic of China flag while ignoring extreme pro-unification groups waving the People’s Republic of China (PRC) flag, one has to ask whether the government is protecting the PRC or Taiwan.
If members of the older generation who wield power are unwilling to face the issues of justice and China, and are unable to propose an alternative solution, they should give the younger generation more room to shape a society in line with their own thinking. Whether things out for the better or for the worse, the future of Taiwanese society is in their hands.
Ivan Ho is a professor in the Department of Sociology at National Taiwan University.
Translated by Drew Cameron