Political scientists — and in fact history itself — tell us that in most countries, violence stems from disenfranchised or disillusioned youth who are oftentimes educated and unemployed. This is why countries like Iran, where more than 60 percent of the population is under the age of 30, are of concern for the stability of the state and the region. Young people are often behind attacks on public property, acts of civil disobedience and demonstrations, as seen at the numerous demonstrations held worldwide in recent years targeting globalization, the G8 and the IMF, to name a few.
Conversely, older people are often portrayed as wiser and less prone to senseless violence, traits that are associated with the experience that comes with age. This view also dovetails with the construct of government as the “parent figure,” while the disgruntled masses are the “children” who must be brought into line.
Ironically, Taiwan bucks that trend. In a country of 23 million people, which faces a threat to its existence from the Chinese military about 150km across the Taiwan Strait, it is the older generation, those 45 and above, who take to the street, slap each other in the legislature or push and shove at public events — altercations that more often than not verge on the farcical. It wasn’t a rebellious 20-year-old who assaulted lawyer Wellington Koo (顧立雄) in August 2006, former representative to Japan Koh Se-kai (�?�) in June and former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in July. Rather, the perpetrator, Su An-sheng (蘇安生), a member of the pro-unification Patriot Association (愛國同心會), is 65.
The handful of protesters who “attacked” China’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS) Vice Chairman Zhang Mingqing (張銘清) during a visit to the Confucius temple in Tainan last week were not youth on a rampage. The incident involved, in the words of Kyodo news agency’s Max Hirsch, “an elderly woman [who] swung feebly at the vehicle with her yellowed crutch.”
So what’s going on with Taiwan? Why does it not fit the model of violent youth and peaceful, or at least milder, elderly? Why are pictures of political demonstrations filled with old people who should probably be watching the rallies from the comfort of their home, while young people are conspicuous by their absence?
The reason is well beyond Taiwan’s alarmingly low birth rate or aging population. Rather, it is a direct consequence of Taiwanese youth being altogether — and dangerously — apolitical. Part of the problem lies in the fact that they were born around the time Taiwan was undergoing its “economic miracle,” which in a matter of a decade or two propelled the developing country into a regional powerhouse. As a result, a majority of Taiwanese youth today, the so-called “strawberry generation” born between 1981 and 1991, never knew hardship or hard physical labor.
Another reason has its roots in Taiwan’s idiosyncratic history: the crushing authoritarianism of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government under dictator Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and his son, Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國). Taiwan’s youth are too young to have been around during the 228 Incident, the White Terror, Martial Law and the Kaohsiung Incident, the system of fear that obtained in Taiwan from 1949 until the end of the 1980s, with tens of thousands of deaths, disappearances and cases of torture under the Chiangs’ police state, when people did not even dare discuss the matter among themselves, lest they be arrested or their livelihood be compromised by forced closures by the state.
Strangely, that fear to discuss politics, let alone criticize the government or discuss this dark, albeit formative, period in the nation’s history, survived the Chiangs’ passing, with the result that today’s youth — those in their 30s and younger — have no idea what their parents or relatives went through, do not understand what it means to live under an authoritarian government, and as a result do not have the pent-up rage that gives rise to violence.
If Taiwan were a normal country, arguing in favor of a violent youth would be preposterous. But it isn’t. It faces an existential threat by a motivated and aggressive enemy.
The threat of Chinese military invasion, which has always existed and which was passed into law in China in 2005 with the “Anti-Secession” Law, however, remains too abstract for young Taiwanese to strike terror in them or to spark countervailing violence. Many were too young and politically unaware when, in 1995 and 1996, Beijing expressed its displeasure at then-president Lee Teng-hui’s (李登輝) visit to the US and Taiwan’s first free presidential election with military exercises, aircraft sorties in the Taiwan Strait and missile launches in the waters off Taiwan’s main ports, while all were not around when the Chinese military bombarded Kinmen on a daily basis during the 1950s.
This ignorance of the implications of war, of the cost to Taiwanese society should China decide to invade, translates into a generation that cannot be bothered unless the matter has an immediate impact on their lives. Obtaining a good education, earning a living and raising a family — noble goals all — are therefore far more important to young Taiwanese today than, say, protecting their country from invasion or fighting for their right to be represented at global institutions like the UN or the WHO.
Furthermore, the abstract nature of war has become such that it has transformed the very nature of compulsory military service in Taiwan. Not only has the duration of service been almost halved, but training itself has been sanitized and consists more of sitting in an office filing reports than learning the principles of defense or using weapons systems. Far too many youth, meanwhile, have found ways to skirt military service altogether by leaving the country every year. Finally, the belief that the US military would come to Taiwan’s assistance no matter what, that the nation can piggyback on so-called “obligations” on Washington’s part to come to Taiwan’s aid in case of need, can only but fuel the deresponsibilization Taiwanese youth seem to have toward their country.
The implications for the ability of Taiwanese soldiers to defend their country cannot be overstated, as it is youth who would be called upon to man the positions, not the elderly, who have already done their part.
At a political level, Taiwanese youths’ ostensible indifference to matters of sovereignty sends a dangerous signal to Beijing, which is that Taiwanese are unwilling to fight for their identity as a people, or for the survival of the democracy that came at the price of blood and tears in their parents’ and grandparents’ time. A nation that fails to light a “fire in the belly” of its richest resource — its youth — and that is unable to appeal to a sense of nationalism to inspire the level of aggressiveness and violence that are required to defend it is strongly handicapped in the game of survival the Chinese Community Party is engaged in, especially on the question of Taiwan. In fact, without an active youth with a modicum of anger and aggressiveness in their heart, Taiwan represents an attractive target for bullying by China, one that, in its eyes, is ripe for capitulation.
This aggressiveness need not translate into acts of “violence” against the likes of Zhang, however undesirable his presence in Taiwan may have been. Channeled properly, it can inflame the imagination and compel a nation’s youth to be steadfast, creative and thunderous in the defense of their ideals. Only when Taiwan’s youth has awakened will Beijing listen and think twice before it tries something foolish.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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