I have been attending, covering and writing about protests in Taiwan for about seven years now, not only for the entertainment value (though they do tend to be colorful and original), but also because I genuinely believe that they serve as an indicator of social and political stability.
I have noticed in the past 12 months or so an interesting shift in the composition of those who participate in the protests and the frequency with which those protests are held. As I wrote in a Taipei Times editorial last week, not a week goes by nowadays without a protest of some sort being organized, a sign, in my opinion, that the government is failing to address issues that are important to the polity.
More important is that increasing numbers of young people are turning out to protest. In the past year or so, several protest campaigns have been organized by young Taiwanese who mobilized using the most modern social platforms, coordinated with law enforcement agencies, ensured order and security at the protests, and managed the events.
Some have faced arrest and suffered opprobrium by the media, government officials and older people, though they did not allow such reactions to discourage them. Many have done so while studying for exams or applying for graduate school.
If all the causes are put together, several thousands of young Taiwanese have rallied on weekends and weekdays, sometimes even spending all night protesting while the rest of the nation was celebrating some holiday or another.
When attending protests I always make sure to bring my camera. Using a 45-200mm lens rather than the standard wide lens, I try to focus on single individuals rather than large numbers of protesters, which allows me to better capture people’s expressions.
Eyes are a window to the soul, so the saying goes, and having the ability to observe them reveals a lot about a person’s state of mind and how seriously they take the cause.
Anyone who accuses young Taiwanese of political apathy, or of not caring about “real” and “serious” issues, should observe close-up pictures of individuals at recent rallies. I challenge anyone who looks at these — the protests against media monopolization, against nuclear energy, the destruction of residences at Losheng or on “stolen land” near National Taiwan University — to argue that the young people there were not determined and that they were only present to snap pictures and have fun with their friends. The light in their eyes, the steadfastness of their ways, gives me great hope.
Young Taiwanese will become involved when the issues speak to their own lives and interests. As such, the composition of the crowd at rallies organized by the pan-green camp targeting the government, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) or China is usually homogenous — people in their sixties or seventies whose voting behavior is already known (green). Based on my observations, the ratio of young people to old at such rallies is about 1:10.
However, social causes, issues of justice or matters that are seen as having a real, direct and immediate impact on people’s lives, tend to attract people from across the spectrum: university students, young professionals, newly formed families, individuals who have voted for various parties as well as Taiwanese and Mainlanders (the latter are terms that, in my view, have become meaningless, as all are inhabitants and citizens of Taiwan). For those, the ratio of young-to-old protesters is probably 8:1.