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.
The only aberration I have seen since 2008 were the protests surrounding the first visit by Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), then-chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Straits, which, though it attracted mostly people from the green camp, also involved a larger mobilization of younger Taiwanese.
Beyond the protests, symposiums and academic gatherings have reflected this generational divide.
Contrast last Friday’s World Taiwanese Congress (WTC) in Taipei with the various focus groups and lectures organized to address a variety of issues, from the destruction of private property by the government to the risks posed by the monopolization of the media environment.
It is little wonder that older Taiwanese believe the younger generation cannot be bothered to become involved in political issues: If the only yardstick used is attendance at lectures (mostly in Taiwanese) in dark conference halls by people who have been regurgitating the same old message for decades, then yes, one could conclude that young Taiwanese could not care less.
However, that is not the case; their lack of participation at those events is because the issues addressed there are seen as irrelevant to young people’s lives.
In many ways young Taiwanese have moved on and no longer understand political participation as meaning opposition to KMT authoritarianism. Instead they look to the future, not harping on issues that, in their view, have already been resolved (democracy, identity), and instead focus on matters of justice and on issues that directly impact their lives: jobs, salaries, owning (and keeping) a house, and so on.
It could even be said that young Taiwanese are applying Nelson Mandela’s message of forgiveness (of past wrongs perpetrated by the apartheid regime) and inclusiveness (a new South Africa for all its inhabitants, white and black).
There is true hope for this nation and its ability to heal from the wounds of the 228 Massacre and the White Terror era when young Taiwanese turn out in large numbers to protest at the injustices perpetrated by a KMT government that seeks to demolish houses that have served as homes to Mainlanders for decades. Issues of “Taiwanese” versus “Mainlander” are unimportant to them; what matters is the injustice caused by those who wield power against those who do not. Those issues of injustice often span several years and involve both KMT and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administrations.
Old arguments about who is a “true” Taiwanese and who is not, or how “evil” a supposedly monolithic KMT is are divisive and do not build solid foundations for a nation. Solidarity does. That sense of solidarity appears to be snowballing, with more organizations showing support for, and participating alongside, other groups.
This cross-pollination of causes has become more apparent in recent protests, with young people one day rallying against the unfair treatment of laid-off workers, only to show up again a few weeks later leading a group of protesters on a 3km six-step-and-kneel walk to Ketagalan Boulevard to oppose the destruction of the Losheng (“Happy Life”) Sanatorium (a perfect example of both DPP and KMT administrations going against the wishes of the people, though the issue of land-grabbing appears to have worsened under the current KMT administration).
Instead of single-issue groups, several organizations, which share similar values, now work together to raise awareness of important issues, and rarely do so through the lens of a specific political preference. In many cases, the organizers would rather political parties not turn up at their events, or at least attempt to keep them at arm’s length.
Through this fledging, still somewhat rough amalgam of people and organizations — “little platoons,” the 18th-century political thinker Edmund Burke called them — Taiwanese may be leading their nation into a new phase of national consciousness, one that manages to transcend the age-old blue/green, Taiwanese/Mainlander political divide that undermines progress.
Gradually, as the causes they espouse attract academics and officials, this emerging movement could coalesce into a third force — a transformative and healing force that could liberate Taiwan’s 23 million people from a stultifying “status quo” that stems from an unresolved past that some people, for various reasons, would prefer remained unresolved.
J. Michael Cole is a deputy news editor at the Taipei Times.