Will They Ever Learn to Trust Taiwan’s Youth?

Unless youth are given the space and responsibilities they are entitled to, Taiwan’s political parties will die of old age, and soon after them, so will the country
J. Michael Cole

Judging from the growing number of unrelentingly cheerful young people who surround party officials at press conferences or who appear in political adverts nowadays, it would be tempting to conclude that the nation’s politicians, shaken from their longstanding slumber by the Sunflower Movement’s eruption earlier this year, have finally realized that youth have a role — an important role — to play in politics. Sadly, there is less to this phenomenon than meets the eye, and the dinosaurs are to blame.

There is no doubt that the youth-led Sunflower Movement, which occupied the Legislative Yuan for 21 days in March and April, led to an acknowledgement by both the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that the parties had failed to propose a viable future for the nation’s young people. With policies that seemed entirely disconnected from the dreams and fears of the current generation of young people, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) KMT succeeded in politicizing a sizeable segment of society that otherwise didn’t seem to have the least interest in public affairs. For its part, the DPP, which should have been the natural go-to party for the disenfranchised youth, appeared unwilling to engage and work with civil society to counter the authorities.

Consequently, the youth that, by force of things, had become politicized was simultaneously turned off by party politics. In their view, the KMT was bad, but so was the DPP. Both were unreliable and untrustworthy. Both were part of the problem. Such was the disillusionment with party politics that, when asked who they would vote for in 2016, many activists replied that they would probably stay home, a rather disheartening confession to hear, given that it came from young people we were arguably the most politically aware members of society.

Still, recognizing that youth could no longer be completely ignored, the parties reacted. The Ma administration and his KMT created “new media” units, and campaign ads increasingly featured young people giving the thumbs-up or otherwise showing their support for a government policy or party candidate.

It quickly became clear, however, that such exercises constituted little more the cynical parading of youth to foster the impression that the party cared about, and in return that it was supported by, young people. Much like objectified Aborigines, these youth were mere propaganda tools. Had the government truly cared about young people, it would have empowered them. It didn’t. The reason is simple. Behind the youngish politicians and the even younger coterie of cheering supporters, dinosaurs continued to run the show. And their interests (political, financial) could not be any further from those of the young people who were now purportedly part of politics.

At first glance, the DPP seemed to do better than the KMT, especially after Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) returned to the party chairpersonship. One of her first moves after she assumed the position was to bring on board some of the young people who had been active in the Sunflower Movement or the many social groups preceded it. Far more than President Ma, Chairperson Tsai seemed to understand the need to give young Taiwanese a say in policy formulation. A number of her recruits became directors or deputy directors at the DPP, a daring move that, while helping fuel silly rumors that she had “masterminded” the Sunflower Movement, promised to breathe much-needed fresh air into a party that had ossified over the years. Others were tapped as potential Li Zhang, foot soldiers at the grassroots who can cultivate support ahead of elections.

However, despite her best intentions, Tsai faced the same challenges that her equally liberal-minded opponents in the KMT have run into: The dinosaurs refuse to go away, and they do not trust — in some cases they openly resent — young people.

Let us be clear; while age is a factor, it isn’t the main one. The 95-year-old political activist Su Beng (史明) has retained his youthful spirit (he still swims every morning and can drink people one-third his age under the table) and, more importantly, he reaches out to young people, listens to them, and seeks to inspire them. Ultraconservatism, status quo minds, and a refusal to quit politics when the time has come to do so are the principal characteristics of the political dinosaur.

Those people fill the central committees and advisory bodies of both political parties, and unfortunately they have retained enough power and influence to make it difficult — sometimes impossible — for party leaders to initiate reform and to tap into the wealth of ideas and energy that could be mined from young people. By doing so, by refusing to trust them, and by instead regarding them as little more than dispensable propaganda puppets, note-takers, secretaries, or waiters, the dinosaurs are forcing the past upon a young generation that is keen to create its own future.

On one side, there are dinosaurs who still believe that Taiwan is part of China, despite the fact that the majority of the population knows otherwise. On the other, there are dinosaurs who continue to believe that Taiwan should have nothing to do with China and who continue to ignore the elephant in the room. Those two futures are the past, and the dinosaurs refuse to empower the younger generation of people who, better than anyone else, know where the middle ground, the real future — their future — lies.

Unless the dinosaurs can learn to trust younger people and agree to bow out gracefully, the young people who are brought on board will be unable to shape policies, and the deplorable stasis that has gripped the nation over the past decade, the zero-sum, scorched-earth party politics that we have resignedly grown accustomed to, will continue. Furthermore, if the reign of the dinosaurs continues, the young people who have chosen to enter government or to join a political party will see their ideals trampled upon and will inevitably be turned off politics for the rest of their lives. If the best and brightest minds this country has to offer, if its most idealistic youth, are dissuaded from entering public service, who will take over after Nature catches up with the dinosaurs and dispenses with them, as it inevitably will? Unless youth are given the space and responsibilities they are entitled to, the two parties will die of old age, and soon after them, so will Taiwan.


J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei. He is the author of the just-published Officially Unofficial: Confessions of a journalist in Taiwan.

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