The chilling effect caused by China’s detention of human rights and democracy advocate Lee Ming-che (李明哲) has spread to the US, where some young Taiwanese said they are now worried about talking about democracy.
Chen Fang-yu (陳方隅), a doctoral candidate in political science at Michigan State University, expressed his concerns at a conference held on Wednesday in Washington by the Global Taiwan Institute on the state of Taiwanese democracy to mark the third anniversary of the Sunflower movement.
The movement refers to student-led protesters’ occupation of the legislative chamber for almost 23 days in March 2014 against the then-Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government’s handling of a cross-strait service trade agreement.
Chen said that unlike democratic countries, China can arbitrarily decide which actions are criminal, including those that other governments consider legitimate exercises of free speech.
The behavior of the Chinese government has caused alarm among Taiwanese students in the US, who are concerned that their criticism of Beijing’s autocratic regime could be held against them if they travel to China for work or research, he said.
Chen said he did not even feel safe sharing with others in the US Taiwan’s democratic experiences, and many Chinese students overseas are also being careful.
Chen said the Sunflower movement broke the legacy of Taiwan’s conservative authoritarian rule and made the public more willing to engage in political dialogue.
It also raised Taiwanese awareness of public issues that could not fit in the political divide of pan-blues versus pan-greens, leading to discussions of issues that were previously ignored, he said.
The movement gave rise to a generation that is naturally inclined to pro-independence politics, said June Lin (林倢), a policy researcher at the Washington-based Formosan Association for Public Affairs who took park in the movement.
Moreover, a subset of young people had become pro-independence and left-leaning, which has led to an ongoing conflict in Taiwanese society between conservatives and progressives, Lin said, adding that young Taiwanese demand both the pursuit of national interest abroad and protection for the rights of the common people at the lower rungs of Taiwanese society at home.
“President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) is situated in the middle of Taiwan’s societal transformation. She has found herself at odds with young people, who feel she is not liberal or progressive enough, as well as being at odds with the previous generation, who believes that she is too radical on issues such as marriage equality,” Lin said.
The transformation of civic norms and social values that the Sunflower movement inspired is the main cause of Tsai’s low approval ratings, because neither side of the progressive and conservative divide is satisfied with her platform, Lin said.
The expanding political role of young people that was precipitated by the Sunflower movement will continue, Lin said, adding that more activists in their 20s are participating in elections to change the Taiwanese government.
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