Putting aside the heated discussion over student protesters’ attendance and courtesy (or lack thereof) at a legislative meeting for a moment, Taiwanese, regardless of political affiliation, should feel happy with what appears to be a new student movement in the making. This is because what the students are fighting for is not political ideology, but fairness, justice and a brighter future for this nation — the same goals as many student movements before them.
Student activism in Taiwan blossomed at a relatively late stage, with the most notable example being the Wild Lily movement of the 1990s. Before that, students were encouraged to focus only on their studies rather than on what was happening around them. The last thing that students or their parents wanted was to tangle with the then-authoritarian regime, which during the White Terror era could cost them their lives or see them jailed for years.
Mass student protests did not occur until November 2008, six months after President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) took office. The Wild Strawberry movement, which opposed police repression against anti-China protesters, showed the differences between modern-day student protesters and their predecessors.
It was the first Taiwanese student movement to make extensive use of the Internet, and the use of the word “strawberry” was a self-deprecating and ironic take on the term “strawberry generation” — which described Taiwanese youth as being soft, pampered and lacking self-discipline.
Since then, what we have witnessed has not been large-scale student protests dominated by political agendas, but rather activity on a much smaller scale, yet with more relevance to the needs of society.
Students have staged protests in Dapu (大埔), Miaoli County, and Taipei’s Shilin District (士林) over controversial land expropriation. Protests have also been held in Taitung County over construction of the Miramar Resort Hotel and in Changhua County over the planned Kuokuang petrochemical project. In Toufen (頭份), Miaoli County, they protested over illegal layoffs by Hualung Co and in Taipei over the controversial Next Media deal.
These students care about a wide range of issues, including the environment, human rights, freedom of speech, development of the media and national security. They maximized the use of social media and the Internet, with mobilization and communication almost exclusively carried out online. Their efforts have led to the changing of inappropriate policies and practices in many cases.
It seems that student protesters are trying to build their own brand of protest movement with creativity and a different mindset to that of their forebears. Gone are the sad songs and long speeches; they employ creative tactics such as telephoning a lawmaker’s office and playing the conversation on loudspeakers. They have their own patrol teams to maintain order, assign trash pick-up details and refuse assistance from political parties. These factors, along with the cause of the protests, were why the students were able to garner support from the public and also from their professors.
It was not an easy task for a group of 20-year-olds at a time when senior citizens are worrying about whether they will receive their pensions, especially when people still describe them as strawberries. These students realize that most of them will probably have to settle for a monthly wage of NT$22,000 and face a nation crippled by financial problems after graduation.
Many people realize that they owe a debt to these students for what they have done, because it was they, and perhaps only they, who have made the public’s voice heard.
There might never be another Wild Lily or Wild Strawberry movement and the prediction of the emergence of a new student movement could be premature. However, if more students would participate in public affairs, then Taiwanese will know that the country will be in good hands in the future.