A study by the Chinese-language United Daily News newspaper has produced some interesting information about social identification, work attitudes, satisfaction with current situations and prospects among different generations. Unfortunately, the study did not address views on the prospects for development of cross-strait relations.
The greatest influence on cross-strait relations at present is the challenge posed to the governments either side of the Taiwan Strait by the social activities triggered by the Sunflower movement — an issue closely connected to generational differences.
After the Sunflower movement, the government discovered that the younger generation did not agree that exchanges with China should be further consolidated. China, on the other hand, discovered that the reason its economic and political efforts in Taiwan have not had much effect was not only that Beijing lacked an understanding of Taiwanese society, but also that it was unable to control what Taiwan’s youth tend to identify with. It is becoming clear that a widening and deepening social gap is opening up between the two sides of the Strait.
The term “social gap” implies that the political and economic policies on either side of the Strait do not permeate society. This includes the cross-strait service trade agreement — the catalyst for the Sunflower movement — and the political and economic work that the Chinese government is directing at Taiwan. This all collided with the doubts and resistance among the nation’s youth, and this resistance to cross-strait economic integration is the result of a few deeper structural factors that both sides of the Strait must address.
First, younger people — those aged 40 or under — grew up during Taiwan’s political democratization process and have no emotional attachment to China. However, those above the age of 40, who have all gone through the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) “greater China” education, have a certain understanding of China and what it means to be Chinese. By contrast, younger people have grown up in a world where Taiwan is all they know and they do not identify emotionally with China.
Second, there are studies showing that many young people recognize that Taiwan needs to use China to improve its economy and that they are willing to work in China, although this does not mean that they think economic integration should lead to political unification. Taiwanese learned a lot through the democratization process and the younger generation now has confidence in and an identification with democracy and freedom. This is why, politically speaking, they are highly distrustful of China’s authoritarian government, which makes it difficult for China to use its current political system as a tool for winning over Taiwanese youth.
Third, the lack of trust in China is a reflection of young people’s growing lack of trust in China’s increasing power. They have lived through the high point of the economic miracle of the Asian Tigers, the gradual stagnation and then regression of salary levels, and the gradual disappearance of job opportunities.
By comparison, China has gone from poverty to economic strength and Shanghai, Beijing and a few other big cities have developed into global metropolises where salaries sometimes exceed those in Taipei. All this has left younger people feeling exploited, and in addition to complaining about the KMT and rejecting the Chinese authoritarian system, many would rather be involved in the community economy, leading a happy small-scale life selling coffee and organic food.