For several years now, both academics and the Chinese media have characterized Taiwanese young people as stay-at-home leeches on their parents’ incomes, constantly chasing the concept of xiaoquexing — a phrase describing the small moments of joy to be found in everyday life. This generation is often thought of as passive, unmotivated, and unambitious. Politics, it is claimed, has never been part of their daily lives.
A frequently used, if unsubstantiated, justification for this notion is the voting rate among Taiwan’s youth population. Historically, polling statistics have shown that voting rates among people aged between 18 and 30 consistently lag behind those of their parents. According to a poll conducted by Taiwanese media outlet TVBS in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 leadership election, 20 percent fewer young people turned out to vote compared to their parents’ generation.
Such lukewarm attitudes toward voting did not see any significant change until the election following the 2014 Sunflower Movement, during which young people protested against the pro-Beijing government’s commitment to the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement.
Of course, voting rates are not the sole indicator of political engagement. Zhang Yuan, who agreed to speak to me under a pseudonym, is a graduate of Taiwan’s National Chengchi University. Before coming to Beijing in 2008, he had been a social activist back on the island, founding student organizations and mobilizing demonstrations against the government’s decision to demolish heritage-listed buildings to clear space for modern construction projects.
Zhang has now returned to Taiwan, where he dedicates himself to the protection of indigenous cultures. Despite his active political life, Zhang has almost never exercised his right to vote. “There are many ways to participate [in politics],” he said. “It’s equally important to create change through what we do in our daily lives.”
From November 2015 to January 2016, through interviews with more than 50 people involved in the Sunflower Movement, I discovered that Zhang was by no means a unique case. Although rarely seen at the voting booths, many young people are still speaking up to oppose the spread of nuclear power, fight for environmental conservation, and even prevent the demolition of a hospital for people with leprosy.
In reality, youth engagement in Taiwanese politics has mirrored the situation in the United States. American scholar Russell Dalton expressed similar concerns in 2009 when he wrote: “American democracy is at risk. The risk comes not from some external threat but from disturbing internal trends: an erosion of the activities and capacities of citizenship.”
Yet Dalton also touched on another side to this phenomenon: Although many American young people lack the motivation to go to polling stations in their own neighborhoods, they still dedicate themselves to volunteering and charitable causes, like helping the communities affected by Hurricane Katrina.
Dalton concluded that the relative indifference of American youth toward voting is not caused by their lack of interest in political and public life; rather, they are taking a unique approach to addressing the nature of political and public life and the link between individuals and politics.
The current generation of American young people is markedly different from those that experienced the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Sixties. For people born after 1970, their rights as citizens are reflected in their participation in public affairs, rather than just through voting in elections. Today’s young people are practicing what Dalton called “engaged citizenship” as opposed to “duty-based citizenship.”
Taiwanese young people are experiencing politics today in much the same way. The Sunflower Movement of March 2014 had a profound impact on Taiwan’s political landscape, most directly in the result of the “nine-in-one” election that followed shortly after, which saw the ruling Kuomintang routed in favor of Tsai Ing-wen’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
These young people are clearly not apathetic toward politics. The level of engagement we saw in 2014 reflected the Wild Strawberries Movement six years previously, which was a reaction to police brutality. It also recalled the Wild Lily Movement of 1990, a six-day student demonstration which resulted in a raft of democratic reforms being passed.
It is very hard to explain how so many supposedly passive young people managed to mobilize within days of the Sunflower Movement and empowered the demonstration leaders with supporting organizations.
Each generation does things differently. Today, Taiwanese young people enjoy the best education system the island has ever known, yet they still face an uncertain economic future. They will come to maturity in an era of rapid technological development but will have to bear the adverse impacts of globalization as well. Living in such different times from their predecessors is bound to shape their political perceptions.
When DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen took office on May 20, 2016, many experts noted the critical importance of the youth vote in her party’s victory. In many ways, it was styled as the Sunflower Movement activists having reached political maturity.
However, if it was premature to call Taiwanese young people “politically apathetic” prior to the movement, then it’s equally arbitrary to decide that they are now “political enthusiasts.” If we truly want to understand young voters in Taiwan, we should refrain from labeling them and look more deeply at the new dynamics of political engagement.
(Header image: A girl watches military vehicles take part in a rehearsal for a military parade, Taipei, Taiwan, Oct. 8, 2016. Tyrone Siu/Reuters)