Generation next: How young people are changing Taiwan politics | Human rights news

Taipei, Taiwan – Independent theater producer Lin Chihyu, 29, originally planned to travel to Vietnam with her maternal grandfather to attend a friend’s wedding ceremony before Taiwan holds a general election in January.

But five days before the poll, she changed her mind and decided not to book her flight.

“If there is no Taiwan, I think it will be very difficult to have another place in Asia that has this degree of freedom,” said Lin, who voted for incumbent Tsai Ing-wen. of the Progressive Democratic Party (DPP) in the capital Taipei. .

“Only Taiwan that allows you to be so free to say [what you want to say]. ”

A democratic political system with a high degree of freedom has fostered a generation of young people increasingly proud of their Taiwanese roots, creating a generational change that is likely to become a growing problem in future island politics.

“It is fascinating to see how Taiwanese born even 10 years apart can have such different life experiences“said Margaret Lewis, Taiwanese political expert and law professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

“People my age remember martial law and were of voting age in the first direct presidential election [in 1996]. People 10 years younger may have vague memories of the authoritarian era, but they grew up in a free and democratic Taiwan, ”added Lewis, 44.

In one investigating changes in Taiwanese and Chinese identity among islanders, the Election Study Center of National Chengchi University found that in June 2019, around 57% of people identified as Taiwanese, while 37% said they were both Taiwanese and Chinese. Only 4 percent said they were Chinese while the rest chose not to respond.

Meanwhile, a Taiwan Democracy Foundation survey found that 82% of those polled between the ages of 20 and 29 were ready to defend Taiwan if “China uses force against Taiwan for unification.”

The Republic of China (ROC) was originally established in 1912 in mainland China. However, after being defeated by the Communists in the Civil War in 1949, its nationalist leaders moved to Taiwan, where they took power.

The victorious Communist, meanwhile, created the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and sees Taiwan as part of its territory. It does not exclude the use of force to incorporate it into the continent.

Not china

Another young person who supported Tsai was Cathy Chan, a 23-year-old master’s student at National Taiwan University, who returned to her home in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, to vote.

“When studying in Japan, a lot of people thought Taiwan was China,” Chan told Al Jazeera, explaining some of the frustration she feels at others’ lack of knowledge about her homeland.

“I confidently want to tell everyone that I am from Taiwan. And Taiwan is a beautiful, democratic and free country.

Timothy S Rich, associate professor of political science at Western Kentucky University (WKU), who has studied Taiwanese electoral politics and public opinion, said young Taiwanese were “much less likely” to think of themselves as Chinese other than in a broad recognition of cultural similarities.

“They see Taiwan as a sovereign state separate from China,” he added.

Johnny Chiang, center, was elected leader of the pro-Chinese KMT earlier this month. He is the youngest person to hold the post as the party faces a generational change that changes the face of politics [Ritchie B. Tongo/EPA]

Austin Wang, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Nevada, told Al Jazeera that a growing sense of unique identity has become one of the most important trends in Taiwan over the past 30 years.

He said during older generations still see themselves as part of China, and unification is an opportunity to resolve China’s so-called “century of humiliation” – the term used in China to describe the mid-19th century period century when it was dominated by Japan, Russia and European powers – young people have different ideas.

“For the young generation who identify only as Taiwanese, they see above all the case of Hong Kong [protests] for example [of Chinese rule]said Wang, who has studied Taiwanese politics and political psychology, adding that young people are mostly opposed to the unification of China.

“Even though the former authoritarian KMT regime tried to persuade the Taiwanese to be Chinese, the de facto separation had made the Taiwanese and the Chinese different in many ways,” he added, referring to the then ruling Kuomintang, which imposed martial law on the island from 1949 to 1987.

This authoritarian system has had a significant effect on Taiwan’s older generation, many of whom remain reluctant to speak out freely.

Chen Yi Chun, 29, who works in a bookstore, said her mother told her every day not to write “reckless” posts about politics on her Facebook.

“Once we, this generation, were born, we had that freedom right away, so we have no way of understanding what they were afraid of,” Chen said. Taiwan’s “unification” with China would be a “very scary thing,” she added.

WKU’s Rich noted that young people were also less likely to have “emotional attachments to China” and would have an easier time asserting their Taiwanese identity.

Future policies

The change left the KMT, with older leaders and a platform seen as favorable to unification, on the back foot.

“While in the not so distant past, the party could position itself as the party of political and economic stability, It now often seems out of touch with Taiwanese society,Rich told Al Jazeera.

This month the party appointed a new leader.

Johnny Chiang, 48, is the youngest person to ever hold the post, but even as the party faces the reality of generational change in Taiwan, its traditionalists remain reluctant to change.

Chiang will also need to be careful with China.

“If China perceives Chiang as seeking to adjust the fundamental principles by which the KMT conducts cross-strait relations, by rejecting the 1992 Consensus, it may seek to sabotage it,” Brian Hioe, a Taiwanese political expert and founding editor of New Bloom, a Taiwan-focused cultural and political magazine, told Al Jazeera, referring to the so-called deal with Beijing that there is only “one China”, but each side has its own interpretation of what “China” is.

While concerns about high real estate prices – an apartment in Taipei is typically 14.5 times higher than median annual household income – and the economy could prove to be fertile ground for the KMT, de many young people remain behind the reformist Tsai.

“Issues that might have been difficult to deal with earlier, from refugee laws to free trade agreements, are probably on the table,” WKU’s Rich said.

“I also expect Tsai and the DPP to be more firm in their response to China more broadly,” he added.

For people like Chen, that would be a welcome development.

“I believe Taiwan will become a better country,” Chen said. “As a citizen, I will use the strength of my life to make Taiwan an existence sufficient to prove that democracy and freedom are the least lethal, but the most effective, weapons against hegemony.”

Janice J. Kostka