Young Taiwanese activists have tied themselves up in chains, blocked mountain roads, scaled fences and thrown red paint balloons in a wave of anti-China sentiment likely to turn politics on its head in January’s presidential election.
An energetic and fast-growing youth movement has been united in suspicion of economic and cultural dependence on China.
“When my generation comes of age, Taiwan’s cross-strait attitude is going to be very different,” student movement leader Huang Yen-ju said. “We want China to treat us like a country.”
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) has signed a series of trade and economic pacts with China, though there have been no political talks and suspicions persist on both sides, especially in proudly democratic Taiwan.
Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is running about 10 percentage points ahead in opinion polls, but they can be inaccurate, particularly as her KMT rival has not been officially nominated and the elections are still months away.
Asked about the January election, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said: “We welcome any Taiwanese party or person, as long as they oppose Taiwan independence.”
The trouble for China is that independence is exactly what Taiwan’s youth movement wants.
Taiwanese activists in their teens and 20s have taken to the streets en masse in recent months, brandishing banners, shouting slogans, scuffling with police and attempting to force their way into government offices.
The scale and duration, while small when compared with the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, reflect the same fears about Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule 18 years ago and which Beijing has suggested as a model for Taiwan.
“Throwing paint is a favorite tactic — it sends a vivid message, but isn’t hurting anyone,” said Chang Chao-lin (張兆林), head of the youth delegation of the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU).
Grievances range from the opening of Chinese flight paths over Taiwanese airspace to Taiwan’s application to join the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and to planned changes to the national curriculum guidelines. These include labeling China “the mainland” and relegating significant events in recent Taiwanese history to sideshows, some students say.
In the latest outburst, Yu Teng-jay (游騰傑) threw balloons of red paint against the wall of the Ministry of Education in Taipei last week.
“These curriculum changes are slanted toward a Chinese view of the world,” Yu, 18, said.
Beijing has proclaimed youth outreach a critical plank of it plans for reconciliation, but China’s reputation among young Taiwanese appears to be in inexorable decline.
A main plank of Ma’s administration, a pact which would have opened much of Taiwan’s service sector to Chinese investment, sparked a three-week occupation of the legislative chamber by young activists last year.
The protest, dubbed the Sunflower movement, ignited a wave of demonstrations against the KMT and its amity to China.
Chang said youth was a new focus for the TSU, which uses social media to organize rallies, including one against a visiting Chinese official which led to scuffles and left one man with a dislocated arm.
This upheaval is spilling over into voting behavior, pollsters say.
In local elections last year, support among 20 to 29-year-olds for pro-independence parties saw a 10 percent rise over the previous election cycle, far outstripping a comparable boost among their elders, according to Academia Sinica.
The data also showed the proportion of young people calling themselves “Taiwanese” versus “Chinese” was the highest among all age brackets.
Similarly, in a hypothetical face-off between Tsai and her presumptive opponent, KMT hopeful Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), in next year’s elections, 20 and 30-somethings supported Tsai by a greater than 20 percent margin, a poll by local broadcaster TVBS showed.
“China clearly wants to take Taiwan, so why should we be more open toward them?” high-school student Fang Xin-jie, 17, asked. “It will only make us more dependent.”
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