Taiwan’s Hopes and the Duty of Its Youth Under Globalization

The following is a speech given by former president Lee Teng-hui at a Jan. 30, 2015, winter youth camp held by the Lee Teng-hui Foundation
Photo: J. Michael Cole / TT
Lee Teng-hui

Hello everyone! I’m extremely happy to have the opportunity to meet you all here today at the young lions camp. Last year’s student-led Sunflower Movement and the [Nov. 29] “nine-in-one” elections especially demonstrated to me how young people are using technology and knowledge to monitor and promote national reform. The power exhibited by youth gives me hope for Taiwan’s future, so I’m very happy to have the occasion to meet and exchange views with you.

In today’s “generational conversation” course, I want to share my thoughts on Taiwan’s hopes and the duties of young people in the age of globalization. Firstly, I want to discuss the Sunflower Movement launched by students last year, and its meaning for Taiwan. Secondly, we should have an understanding of the current circumstances of our globalizing world. Thirdly, we will explore the challenges and opportunities that Taiwan needs to work with today. Fourthly and finally, I will discuss young people’s responsibilities to their country.


I. The student movement’s meaning for Taiwan

From the Dapu and Hung Chung-chiu (洪仲丘) incidents in 2013 to the Sunflower Movement in 2014, the formation of the concept of civil society has deeply influenced Taiwan’s future political direction. Traditionally, politics was ruled by the elite and was a game of money and power. However, with the ongoing development of civil society, we citizens now realize that politics is something that is right beside us, and we care about more than just unification vs. independence, or “blue” vs. “green” — we have more concern about problems like environmental sustainability, human rights protections, and social equality and justice.

Under this kind of conception and the advancement of Internet technology, civil society has risen rapidly. The Sunflower Movement thoroughly displayed the capabilities of civil society. Within moments, crowds were assembled, money was raised, and resources were allocated. Through online campaigns, 500,000 people gathered in a very short time. Youth utilized their knowledge and abilities to integrate collective power and loudly convey that “the government should humbly face the public and must accept the commands of the citizens. The citizens are the rulers of this country.” Taiwanese people used their actions to implement the concept that “sovereignty lies with the citizens.”

The awakening of civic power finally bloomed during the “nine-in-one” elections last year. They really and truly cast their votes against the ruling party [KMT]. Youth in particular used their ballots to tell the government that citizens consider unequal wealth distribution, generational inequity, and land justice to be important issues.

When the Sunflower Movement bellowed the roar of the young, youths’ attitudes toward politics changed as well. “Save your country yourself. Change your politics yourself.” Following the Sunflower Movement, young people’s energy thoroughly influenced Taiwan’s political development and what’s more, changed Taiwanese people’s political attitudes and imaginations. Citizens now understand that they can only change politics if they participate in it themselves.

A nation only has hope when its young people are concerned about politics. Where Taiwan should go from here is also an issue we should be deeply concerned about.


II. The current global situation

Looking back on the 20th century, we can see the following important conclusions to it: The speedy development of science and technology and the resultant establishment of the Internet information society, as well as globalization, the collapse of the world order, and the maladjustments and metamorphoses of capitalist economies. There are also resource shortages as well as changes in both the climate and the structure of the world’s population. These have all caused adjustment difficulties for every country. Taiwan is part of a dynamic world and has no way to keep itself removed from those shifts. Hence, it should understand the ways the world is changing.

i. Globalization

The modern world is a global village. The influence of borders and distance has receded due to the development of information, communications, and transportation along with the liberalization of trade. Something that occurs in one part of the world affects the rest of it.

For example, when the 921 Earthquake hit Taiwan, the whole world worried about the effect on wafer production. The Chinese rush for gold and red wine drove up the global prices of these commodities. The melamine-tainted milk powder scandal in China caused Chinese to go farther afield to grab safe milk powder, causing shortages and soaring prices for this product in neighboring countries. The collapse of the U.S. property bubble in the subprime crisis, and the subsequent downfall of Lehman Brothers, brought global financial markets to the brink of collapse. The Fukushima nuclear accident and resulting power outage influenced Japanese industry, in turn affecting production of North American and European automobiles and electronics. Recently, the U.S. West Coast dockworkers strike caused ingredient shortages for fast food companies in Taiwan. There are so many examples like this. So we must recognize that this is a globalized era, and we must care about global dynamics and have a globalized perspective.

ii. The G-Zero Era

Following the Second World War, due to the antagonism between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, there was also opposition between capitalism and communism on the world stage. This continued until the Soviet Union dissolved and capitalism won, leaving the U.S. alone at the top. The entire world economy has been influenced by the U.S.

But in recent years, the U.S. has declined and its allies, like the European Union and Japan, have had great trouble handling their own affairs. Without a world leader, other countries have emerged, like China, Brazil, India, and South Africa, and the world has developed in the direction of multilateralism.

More than 10 countries, including China, Russia, and Iran, have developed a new multilateral institution that excludes the U.S.: the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). China has taken another step by gathering with Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa in an organization of newly emerging markets known as BRICS. China has also promoted the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes 16 Asian countries and excludes the U.S. It’s extremely clear that China plans to replace or resist the U.S.-led global order. And America has brought together the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, which does not include China. It hopes to use the TPP to establish a tighter alliance with Japan and the E.U. and respond to the challenges from the emerging large nations.

The relationship between China and the U.S. has an extremely huge influence on Taiwan. Facing the coming G-Zero era, the world could form confrontational blocs. Taiwan must understand itself, objectively observe the changing conditions, and find the road it wants to take.

iii. Battle for resources

Besides these changes in the world situation, competition over the planet’s most important resources — oil, water, and grains — could break out as well due to possible shortages.


Humanity has long relied on oil. The great nations once did not hesitate to go to war with each other over it. Now, the emerging nations of India and China have joined the line of countries in the oil rush due to their economic development needs. This has driven global demand for oil, and so the depletion of it has accelerated. Although recently the efficiency of America’s shale oil mining has increased, bringing the global crude oil price down, oil is still a relatively limited commodity. How to develop natural gas as well as renewable resources like solar, wind, biomass, and photovoltaic power is a long and ongoing project.

Taiwan’s energy policy must take into account that the nation only produces 0.6% of the energy it uses, meaning it is in a passive position in the global energy scene. How to present more proactive strategies and methods is a goal for the nation to work toward in the future.


Industrialization has led to excessive emission of carbon dioxide, blocking the dispersal of the sun’s thermal energy, causing higher temperatures around the world, and causing more rapid evaporation of surface water. Global warming has thus brought about shortages of water resources.

2,500 millimeters of rain fall on Taiwan every year, 2.5 times the global precipitation average. However, Taiwan’s population density is high; the altitude of its terrain rises and falls dramatically; its rivers are short and cannot intercept rainwater; its rainy seasons are not evenly distributed; sometimes it floods; sometimes it suffers droughts; and its reservoirs’ volumes are shrinking because of sedimentation buildup. Hence, the effective volume of water resources the nation obtains per person per year is just 1,700 tons. This is only 24% of the average for an Asian nation, and it is the 18th-lowest average in the world.

Because there were too few typhoons last year, from the end of 2014 until now Taiwan has endured its worst drought in a decade. The Shihmen Reservoir is at its lowest level in 11 years. If the government does not proactively craft water resource policies, this shortage will gravely influence the development of manufacturing and tech industries, and even worse, cause a national food crisis.


On March 31, 2013, at a conference it held in Yokohama, Japan, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced a report which indicated that climate change has already had an impact on the security of food and the human race. In 2011, there was a crisis that left the world with only 69 more days of grain reserves. Food safety has already become a problem of grave importance for the nations of the world.

Ten years from now, the world population could reach 8 billion; India’s population will have surpassed China’s; and the population growth of newly emerging nations like China and India will have increased their demand for meat, necessitating their import of more grain for livestock feed. World demand for grains will have thus increased enormously.

However, desertification of the earth’s land is becoming more and more serious: sea levels are rising; industrial development has reduced the supply of arable land; the earth is warming; and radical weather is reducing agricultural yields. Because the world’s assets are unequally distributed, factors such as inconvenience of transport or war could result in 900 million people having too little to eat. A grain crisis could break out at any time.

According to Council of Agriculture statistics, Taiwan has historically had at most 200,000 hectares of fallow farmland. Although in 2013 that total had fallen to about 110,000 hectares, much of the reactivated land has been devoted to growing flowers and local specialties under government policy, not to growing grains. Thus, Taiwan’s food self-sufficiency has slipped year by year and last year stood at only 33%.

Taiwan has long relied on grain imports and should profoundly understand what a grain crisis would mean. But this year, because of the water shortage, the government declared that irrigation of over 40,000 hectares of farmland would be suspended in the first growing season, so this land will become fallow. This policy is severely influencing farmers’ right to make a living by farming, and it’s made more prominent the risk that a grain crisis could occur.

Rare resources

Besides those three precious resources, the nation’s industrial production requires rare earth metals — such as indium for LCD panels and manganese for batteries — which are concentrated in the U.S., China, Russia, and South Africa. The rare earths needed to produce high-tech industries’ major components and physical memory are practically monopolized by China. In 2009, China produced 97% of the world’s rare earths. Then, it blocked rare earth exports to Japan because of a dispute over the Diaoyutai [Senkaku] Islands, forcing Japan to actively procure and explore for rare earths elsewhere.

Nations are constantly on the verge of territorial disputes due to this contest for resources. For example, China covets the oil in the South China Sea and initiated a conflict there with its neighbor Vietnam over it. That led to riots against ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, and Taiwanese businesses were caught in the crossfire.

The nuclear crisis in Fukushima forced all nations to rethink their energy policy. They hovered between painful choices to use or do away with nuclear power. After several debates, Taiwanese society finally decided to mothball its fourth nuclear reactor.

iv. Climate change

Recent years have seen numerous meteorological and geological anomalies, including severe cold and heat waves, droughts, torrential rain, earthquakes, tsunamis, snowstorms, and strong typhoons. 2007 brought news of a massive five-year drought in Australia. In 2009, Typhoon Morakot struck Taiwan. In 2011, Australia suffered its worst flooding in a century, and Japan was struck by the Great Tōhoku Earthquake. Mankind’s survival is already seriously threatened. Moreover, extreme weather on the North Pole, with the melting of icebergs, has caused sea levels to rise, which will hugely influence the whole world.

v. The assault of trade liberalization

Privatization, deregulation, economic globalization, and trade liberalization have instigated conflicts within and between nations and among social classes and organizations. 10% of the world’s population controls 85% of the resources. The wealthy are ever wealthier, but the poor will always be poor.

The liberalization of trade has substantially eliminated economic barriers between nations, allowing freer and swifter flows of goods, personnel, technology, and capital between nations. The acceleration of trade liberalization under globalization has also led to conflicts of civilizations, as epitomized by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. A more recent example is the fatal shootings of staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo due to the periodical’s ridicule of the Prophet Muhammad.

vi. Demographic aging

For a nation to develop its economy, it must raise the ratio of its population that is between the ages of 15 and 64, but in some advanced countries the proportion of citizens age 65 and over is very high. According to Ministry of the Interior statistics, Japan has the highest proportion of senior citizens in the world at 24.1%, followed by Italy at 20.8%, Germany at 20.7%, and Sweden at 19.1%.

Due to Taiwan’s economic slump, its birthrate has plummeted to grave levels. In 2013, just 199,113 children were born, a drop of 24% in comparison with 2001 (the same year in the zodiac cycle). Those 65 and older made up 12% of the national population by the end of 2014, and over 14% (the standard for an aged society) in Chiayi, Yunlin, Penghu, and Nantou. In 2026, Taiwan will have 3.3 workers to support each elderly person; in 2051, that ratio will have fallen to 1.5 workers per senior citizen. In 2012, 74.2% of Taiwan’s population was of working age, but that percentage is projected to drop to 50.7% (just 9.6 million working-age people) in 2060. Taiwan will then have a severe manpower shortage, and its productivity and competitiveness will both be affected. As its national debt adds up at the same time, Standard & Poor’s may lower the nation’s credit rating.


III. Taiwan’s challenges and opportunities

The aforementioned global problems will also confront our nation. And our present predicament can be seen in two ways: as a socio-economic crisis and as a stagnation of democratic development.

i. Five major socioeconomic crises

Because the government has fallen into the trap of the liberalization myth, conniving businesspeople have pursued their own profits without limit, and the judgment of business opportunities among financial consortia have been substituted for a national development orientation. This has forced the majority of Taiwanese to bear the nefarious social consequences of liberalization. The nation’s economic safety and its overall interests in the long term have not been considered, and so the following five crises have taken shape:

Crisis 1: Overreliance on China has hollowed out our industry. Technology has flowed outward, and momentum for development has been lost.

Solution: Maintain technological superiority to ensure economic and trade sovereignty.

Crisis 2: Overinvestment in China has made jobs difficult to find, prevented wage growth, and widened the wealth gap between the rich and poor in Taiwan.

Solution: Creating jobs would be the most effective way to close the wealth gap.

Crisis 3: The liberalization myth has caused loss of focus in government administration, and substantive competitiveness has continuously declined.

Solution: Consolidate the innovation capabilities of small and medium-sized enterprises. Promote technological rootage of industry clusters.

Crisis 4: Overreliance on importation of energy resources and food has left the nation’s economic security in the lurch.

Solution: The government should lead the construction of a sustainable economic system and proactively develop renewable resources and healthy agriculture.

Crisis 5: The financial services industry has overridden the substantive economy, distorting development.

Solution: Redefine who governs whom in the relationship between the financial system and the substantive economy.

ii. The stagnation of democratic development

The Sunflower Movement only occurred because of the disorder among representative institutions, the arbitrary actions of the executive branch, and the arrogance of our leaders following Taiwan’s first democratic reform. The movement also highlighted the limitations of that first reform.

Limitations of the first democratic reform

Limitation 1: The counterattack against democracy by reactionary forces, and the arbitrariness of leaders

Although Taiwan has employed democratic systems for many years, many of its people have still maintained an authoritarian mindset. After seizing governmental power and authority, these people displayed an attitude of “to the victor go all the spoils.” They had absolutely no concern for other people’s views and placed no importance on the rights and benefits of other regions and groups. Their leaders were not willing to incline their ears to the voices of the citizens. As a result, today’s Taiwan only acts out the forms of democracy; in reality it is governed dictatorially.

For example, when it came to the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), the government cared only about the benefits of the financial consortia, but these consortia had not distributed the fruits of economic growth to our citizens. Economic benefits were instead kept in the clutches of the few. Yet the government did not face squarely the voices of the citizens. That is what led to the Sunflower student movement and the ruling party’s massive defeat in the nine-in-one elections.

Limitation 2: Disorder of representative institutions and no manifestation of direct democracy

The current ruling party has used the revocation of party membership as a tool to control legislators. As a result, its legislators must follow the commands of the party, which has not considered the citizens’ interests one iota. The citizens have thus lost sovereignty, and their representative institutions are in a state of disorder.

Citizens’ doubts about policy are commonly played up as resistance to the party, making it impossible to conduct rational debate. Citizens only have the right to vote; they cannot meaningfully participate in policymaking. Moreover, they cannot monitor the government whenever necessary. The conditions of the current Referendum Act are too strict, so the citizens also have no way to pass a referendum when necessary to express their opinions on public policy.

Limitation 3: Citizens’ loss of faith in democracy

The loss of governing capability by political parties has caused a lack of faith in democracy among citizens. The power to safeguard democracy has been sapped. And when the desire for democracy is not firm enough, dictators have a new opportunity to take the scene.

Limitation 4: The dysfunction of the media, the fourth estate

Taiwan removed its restrictions on the press long ago, but business conglomerates and the government have used their financial resources to take hold of the media and use them to manipulate public opinion. Although this is the era of new online media, and citizens can catch up on current events by using the Internet, this media control and manipulation of public opinion is still an effective means to threaten democracy. A resolution to this problem must be found.

Limitation 5: Excessive centralization

The past 20 years of democratic reform have not directly assisted local development. This phenomenon is largely related to the excessive centralization of political power in the national government, which has resulted in local governance systems not being sound enough. On top of that, the judicial system is unjust and has completely lost its credibility among the public. Under these circumstances, we can say that the successes of Taiwan’s first democratic reform have reached a limit, and we must try to break through to the next step of reform.

The second democratic reform

Reform 1: Establishing our identity and deepening democracy

To resolve the stagnation of democratic development, we should first establish our identity and inspire citizens’ patriotism. On the foundation of Taiwanese people’s self-identification, we can take the next steps to deepen our democracy.

Reform 2: Strengthen civil society

For civil society to take shape, citizens must leap out of the trap of binary blue-green antagonism and instead form alliances on various issues. Moreover, actual political participation through rational dialogue will lead to decisions that meet the needs and interests of the vast majority of citizens.

Reform 3: Advance constitutional reform

Most important is the advancement of constitutional reform. The student movement last March was a vocalization of the whole of society’s demand for change. Through the Internet, the power of citizens was gathered to become the strongest force for reform. Because the ruling party has no way to respond to society’s demand for change, it failed miserably in the nine-in-one elections last November. But after that failure, the citizens discovered a bigger constitutional problem: the president, who had lost the support of the public, had absolutely no need to take responsibility. Thus, at that time I stood up and demanded for that president to resign.

In order to resolve political problems, last year’s student movement proposed the convening of a citizens’ constitutional conference. I believe that having gone through the election at the end of last year, everyone should have a more visceral understanding of the problems with Taiwan’s current Constitution [the ROC Constitution]. Hence, the pace for reforming it should pick up. Whether it’s the organization of the central government, the relationship between the local and central governments, or the protection of human rights, any topic can be discussed. Society’s opinion leaders and impartial individuals, and the ruling and opposition parties, should all actively work together to promote constitutional amendment. During the amendment process, we can consider together the future of the country and thoroughly reform the shortcomings that surfaced after the first democratic reform.


IV. Young people’s duties to their country

Your generation, coming of age in times of global change and inhabiting a nation in predicament, should squarely face these circumstances, forge itself, overcome its obstacles, unleash its power, and make itself capable to bear its responsibilities and create a new era that truly belongs to it.

i. Young people must have faith and a philosophical perspective, learn humbly, and constantly overcome difficulties

To fulfill your duties, you must have a firm will, and a firm will comes from faith. Young people today seem inclined to emphasize substance and concrete matters, but this can easily lead to the loss of one’s capabilities of abstract thought and spiritual contemplation. You should emphasize conservation of character and values, cultivate the habit of philosophical reflection, and nurture a heart that loves your country and loves other people.

I hope that all of you will continue to enrich yourselves, constantly retaining hearts that study humbly and are not self-satisfied. Frequently remind yourself you must have the most open-minded attitude in order to learn new knowledge and concepts. Even more so, you must pay attention to Taiwan’s ongoing social development as well as changes in international circumstances in order to broaden your perspective. Only then can you face all the future’s challenges, continuously overcome, and truly grow and thrive.

ii. Bursting with enthusiasm, put your ideals into practice

For a country’s reform to succeed, its youths must initiate actions with great ambition. The era of the Bakumatsu (the end of Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate) can serve as an inspiration to us. Japan’s youth were bursting with enthusiasm, and they created a new nation. I hope that all of you embrace your ideals and passion, uphold your courage and calling to carry your generation’s responsibilities to its country, stand up for Taiwan, infect the entire country with your enthusiasm, and arouse everyone to come together to create a beautiful national vision for Taiwan and take action to achieve it.


Lee Teng-hui was president of Taiwan from 1998-2000. This article is reprinted and translated with permission of the Lee Teng-Hui Foundation. Translation by Anonymous/Thinking Taiwan.

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