Written by Brian Hioe.

The Rise of an “Activist Subculture” Among Taiwan’s Youth

If many have pointed towards the historic nature of 2016 elections in Taiwan, it would be on the basis of the transition of power between KMT and DPP which will almost certainly take place. This would, of course, be the second time the DPP has taken power and overall the third transition of power between political parties, assuming a Tsai victory. But this would also be the first presidential election since the Sunflower Movement, the largest set of demonstrations Taiwan has seen since the 1990 Wild Lily Movement, one of the crucial events in Taiwanese democratization. The Sunflower Movement was the monthlong occupation of the Legislative Yuan by student activists as a reaction to the passage of the CSSTA trade bill and culminated in 500,000—out of a total population of 23 million—taking to the streets of Taipei on March 30th, 2014.

The surprise defeat of the KMT and unexpected victory of the DPP in nine-in-one elections in late November last year was one of the first indicators that the upsurge of youth activism in Taiwan had bore concrete political fruit. Though largely a development of the last three years, the Sunflower Movement’s roots lay in the 2008 Wild Strawberry student occupation, a response to the visit of Chinese ARATS chairman Chen Yunlin to Taiwan. The crucial student networks which undergirded the Sunflower Movement trace their origin to the Wild Strawberry student occupation. Several of the key leaders of the Sunflower Movement were Wild Strawberry participants, despite being high school students at the time.

However, the rise of Taiwanese civil society and student activism as expressed in the Sunflower Movement was largely a development out of the past three years of youth activism. In the past three years, something of an youth activist subculture has formed in Taipei among young people, largely students. Activism has centered around issues of nuclear power in Taiwan as foregrounded after the 2011 Fukushima incident, forced land evictions for commercial redevelopment in Miaoli county, the death of military cadet Hung Chung-Hsiu under mysterious circumstances, and the buying up of Taiwanese media by Chinese interests. The Sunflower Movement would be the first time youth activism was foregrounded in mainstream media, but it was far from a spontaneous development. Activist subculture has its own celebrities, independent news outlets, popular bands, and hangout spots. Social media and the Internet have played a crucial role as binding together activist subculture, as a network for discursive and interpersonal exchanges.

Are Youth Activists Critical of Both KMT and DPP?

Although we can trace the present backlash against the KMT to a reaction by Taiwanese youth against policies under the Ma Ying-Jeou that draw Taiwan uncomfortably close to China, after eight years of the Chen Shui-Bian administration youth activists had also become critical of the DPP. The DPP set up an encampment off to the side of Legislative Yuan not long after the Legislative Yuan occupation began. But the DPP saw censure from student activists for what was perceived as an attempt to co-opt the movement and for attempting to come in with native versus mainlander Taiwanese identity politics dating from the Chen Shui-Bian era—which many students found alienating. It would be that the current generation of Taiwan’s young is quite often tired of identity politics of mainlander versus native Taiwanese. Many mainlander descendants identify with Taiwan rather than China and were themselves participants in the movement.

If the DPP was largely the victor of nine-in-one elections, it was the dissatisfaction with both DPP and KMT alike that allowed for the victory of independent candidate Ko Wen-Je for Taipei mayor. Subsequently, civil society itself entered into electoral politics, with the rise of the the “Third Force” political parties (第三勢力), whose candidates were largely established activists drawn from the Sunflower Movement or from known names of youth activism. Though fragmentation between “Third Force” parties seems to be an artifact of past disagreements in activism, “Third Force” parties cited the need to eliminate the KMT but also provide oversight over the DPP as a reason for forming new, independent third parties and generally claimed a left political orientation. Newly emergent Left perspectives from a pro-independence position continue to be integral aspects of the new political landscape led by youth.

It is interesting to note, however, that despite the untested nature of the “Third Force”, after the Sunflower Movement, young people have come to occupy an important place in the political discourse. Particularly following the victory of Ko Wen-Je for mayor of Taipei as an independent, Ko’s campaign having incorporated a number of elements drawn from civil society and in that way sometimes seen as having been put into power by civil society, both DPP and KMT alike have attempted to attract Taiwan’s young.

Attempts by the KMT to mobilize young people through appeals to the KMT’s brand of Sinocentric nationalism have been unsuccessful, only serving to demonstrate how out of touch the KMT is with Taiwan’s young when these attempts at outreach backfire and become objects of mockery. While many have opined as to the aging nature of the current KMT, the young people who do, in fact, support the KMT are largely ideological adherents of KMT’s internal creed of Three Principles-ism (三民主義), who are descended from deep blue families and have been raised upon KMT ideology from birth. This minority of young KMT supporters has been largely unable to communicate with their Taiwanese peers and seem unlikely to find means to do so in the future.

But it is interesting to note that the DPP has, in some way, actually gone out of its way to accommodate the participation of young people in politics. It seems very likely that the DPP could have simply pushed aside post-Sunflower “Third Force” party candidates had it decided to do so. Yet DPP candidates in some locations have withdrawn in favor of “Third Force” candidates. This is a very likely a product of the DPP chairman and presidential candidate Tsai Ing-Wen not wanting to go against the upsurge of youth participating in Taiwanese politics. If Tsai’s platform has been emphatic on social equality as a pivotal part of her campaign messaging, whether in regards to marriage equality or aid for socially disadvantaged groups, probably this is an appeal to the leftwards political drift of this generation of Taiwanese youth.

What Will Happen to Youth Activism After the End of the Tsai Honeymoon?

Even if it was that during the Sunflower Movement itself, youth activists were critical of the DPP and perceived attempts to co-opt the movement, in the absence of any alternative viable presidential candidate outside of the DPP and KMT, afterwards Tsai became the preferred candidate of Taiwanese youth activists and civil society. Like Ko before her, Tsai absorbed many elements of post-Sunflower Movement civil society into her campaign, for example, with Tsai’s campaign aesthetic being designed by Aaron Nieh, designer of prominent Sunflower Movement website Democracy at 4 AM.

And it may be that the DPP has succeeded in neutralizing “Third Force” parties. The New Power Party (NPP), which includes prominent Sunflower Movement leaders as Huang Kuo-Chang, Chen Wei-Ting, Lin Fei-Fan, and Dennis Wei, has drawn increasingly close to the DPP. None other than Tsai herself has stumped for them in recent weeks. NPP candidate Hung Tzu-Yung, sister of deceased military cadet Hung Chung-Hsiu, shares an office with Tsai’s campaign in Taichung and now has the DPP mayor of Taichung city, Lin Chia-Lung, managing her campaign. Even the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which initially positioned itself as the” Third Force” party which would be most ideologically opposed to cooperating with the DPP—probably the crucial factor behind its split with the NPP—has seen backsliding, with DPP politicians featuring prominently at the inauguration ceremony for the campaign headquarters of SDP candidate Li Yen-Jong.

After the probable victory of Tsai, it may be that Tsai makes moves to include elements of Taiwanese civil society into her administration. Actually, we saw something similar during the first time a DPP candidate took presidency, under Chen Shui-Bian, with the absorption of NGO groups into his administration. Under Chen, this later led to some demoralization on the part of NGOs because of disagreements with Chen’s later actions in office but that NGO groups had already been neutralized through absorption.

Will we see similar disillusionment from Tsai? We may already have early indications of moves by Tsai which will make her unpopular with the youth activists of the Sunflower Movement. The DPP was noticeably rather muted in its criticisms of the KMT during the Ma-Xi summit which took place in early November in Singapore, Tsai later voicing that she herself might be interested in meeting Xi in Beijing once president when asked.

Indeed, even the Ma-Xi summit took place in the supposedly neutral grounds of Singapore and not in Beijing, there being little chance of Xi coming to Taipei. Tsai’s statement led to some backlash by activists, although indications by polling are that the Taiwanese public would approve of such a meeting. The perception by activists is that such a meeting would be a betrayal of what principles separate Tsai from Ma Ying-Jeou and the KMT.

Namely, it is a commonly held belief among Taiwanese youth activists that the DPP and KMT are not so different. It is well known that the DPP has never controlled the legislature and only the presidency or that there have always existed vast disparities in KMT resources and DPP resources, not only financially, but in regards to number of personnel and the extensive local networks of the KMT spanning all of Taiwan. However, activists are quick to point to where DPP politicians can be as corrupt as KMT politicians in using political connections to line their pockets, for example, through colluding with construction companies to carry out urban evictions for the sake of commercial redevelopment.

If it is that Tsai has managed to avoid much of the criticisms leveled against the DPP as a whole through having a “clean” personal image, Tsai declaring her interest in meeting with Xi right after Ma had declared he would be meeting with Xi made activists uncomfortable because this also raised the possibility that the DPP would not be so different from the KMT even in the realm of cross-strait relations—although this is the central reason why one would vote DPP rather than KMT.

Indeed, there remain international observers who still perceive Tsai as a dangerous pro-independence warmonger in the mold of Chen Shui-Bian and continues to view the KMT as the only rationale choice to maintaining peace in the Taiwan Straits—this despite no small amount of telegraphing by Tsai that she would not be so disruptive to the status quo. So it does actually seem possible Tsai will make moves to “KMT-ize” her conduct of relations with China in order to keep America and other powers happy.

There has been increasing criticism of the “Third Force” by youth activists on the basis of increased closeness with the DPP. However, among Taiwanese activists, it remains a more controversial stance to criticize Tsai herself.  It is far less controversial to criticize the DPP as a whole. It may be that Tsai’s actions as president lead to demoralization from youth activists if they have a significant role in putting Tsai into office but she disappoints their expectations.

We saw the sustained vitality of youth activism this past summer with, for example, the weeklong occupation of the courtyard of the Ministry of Education by high school students in response to planned textbook changes to a Sinocentric vision of Taiwanese history and as directly sparked by the suicide of student leader Dai Lin. But it is a different question altogether as to the relation of youth activism and electoral politics. If the past year was the entrance of a generation of young people who had been previously thought to be politically indifferent into politics, it remains to be seen what the political role of Taiwan’s young will be going forward under Tsai’s presidency. Will we see continued resiliency of youth activism as we saw in the past year? Or is it that we will see a precipitous decline in activism once the Tsai honeymoon is over?

Brian Hioe is a graduate student at Columbia and editor/contributor to New Bloom Magazine.