Taiwan’s Youth: The Loudest Voices in Cross-Strait Diplomacy
by Sean Silbert
This summer, over 700 Taiwanese high school students climbed the barricades of the education ministry demanding a meeting with the minister. The event is part of a recent string of protests that are threatening to shake up the upcoming Taiwanese elections and send Taipei’s relationship with Beijing into a new and uncertain direction.
The demonstrations, the largest in Taiwan since last year, centered on a textbook revision in which the island was described as “returned” to China from Japan after World War II. The students claimed that the phrasing in the new books would “brainwash” them into supporting reunification with mainland China.
The protests are the latest in a long line of youth demonstrations over the past several months stemming from fears of Chinese encroachment. Activists in their teens repeatedly took to the streets in Taipei and other Taiwanese cities to protest Chinese policies, waving banners and scuffling with police. A favored protest tactic included throwing paint to express discontent with Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party’s agreements with China on economic issues and expanded commercial flight paths.
The growing numbers of youth protests suggest that Taiwanese identity politics are shifting. Taiwanese citizens are no longer describing themselves as Chinese, but rather as Taiwanese, according to surveys by National Chengchi University. Agitation against influence from the mainland is solidifying, disrupting the previous perceptions of growing closeness between the “two Chinas.”
The Kuomintang fled to the island in 1949 after losing a civil war on the mainland to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – which has regarded Taiwan as a “renegade province” ever since. The CCP maintains a “one China” policy and has not ruled out the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control.
Beijing also uses another, more subtle strategy to strengthen its influence in Taiwan. Over the past decade, China has used its powerful economic engine to double down on investments as consumer demand and cultural promotions simultaneously push its interests and stifle criticism abroad. This has silenced everyone from universities and media institutions to lawyers and tech companies who are eager for a slice of lucrative Chinese financing.
China’s economic rise has also been appealing for the KMT, which has eagerly sought out Chinese investment. Since 2009 the two sides have signed contracts amounting to $1.2 billion, despite wariness from a Taiwanese populace critical of the mainland’s continuing crackdown on civil rights and free speech. As such, Chinese investment is more difficult to swallow in Taiwan: last year, a major proposal to open up Taiwan’s service sector to Chinese investment prompted students to initiate athree-week occupation of Taiwan’s parliament.
This disagreement further fuels a “Taiwanese” identity, which is representing itself at the polls against the KMT. The KMT’s support for Chinese investment means that the youth vote is overwhelmingly in favor of its key opponent, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which leans heavily toward independence from China. After the protests last year, the KMT was crushed in regional elections, losing nine mayoral and county races. If the DPP takes the presidential election in January, it will have control over both the presidency and the legislature of Taiwan’s government for the first time.
It is likely that the DPP’s candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, will win; currently, she is polling as the clear frontrunner. Furthermore, a growing sense of “Taiwanese” identity, which previously played a major role in the 2004 reelection of DPP candidate Chen Shui-bian, suggests Tsai Ing-wen will have an edge in the election.
Her victory could in turn rankle Beijing’s leadership, who prefer to work with more politically friendly KMT politicians. Beijing’s spokesman Ma Xiaoguang told a news briefing in April that “if (the DPP) upholds the Taiwan independence splittist position of ‘one country on either side of the strait,’ then it will be hard to find a way out for cross-strait relations.”
Taiwanese youth are wary of how Beijing reacted to Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong and fearful of a repressive China spreading its influence abroad. The “one country, two systems” model currently in place in Hong Kong delegates ultimate authority to Beijing, making it an unappealing offer to Taiwanese youth opposed to any sort of reunification.
Since younger voters are overwhelmingly more likely to support autonomy, Beijing’s efforts to win over Taiwanese hearts and minds are likely to be stymied both before and after the upcoming election. This growing identity change mean civil protests will continue in the short term, and signal a fundamental shift for the worse in the relationship between the two sides for years to come.
Beijing has an enormous challenge ahead of it if it wants peaceful cooperation with “the other China.” The concept of Chinese identity is clearly important to Beijing, but mainland China has little experience or success dealing with identity politics. The challenge is that once a separate identity begins to coalesce it is increasingly difficult to reverse. A China more willing to assert itself abroad means the conflict between is likely to continue.
Beijing would do well to listen to the student protesters who are announcing Taiwan’s new attitude very clearly. As one 18-year-old demonstrator at the education ministry put it, while standing in front of a memorial to a student who killed himself over the textbook controversy: “We are Taiwan. China is China.”
About the Author
Sean Silbert is a freelance journalist based in Beijing, China. He has previously written for The Los Angeles Times, CNN, and other publications on Chinese and Asian affairs.