The Powers That Be and the ‘R’ Word in Taiwan

Once again the authorities are accusing young activists of ‘irrationality.’ But there is nothing ‘irrational’ about the screamers
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
J. Michael Cole

Taiwan’s political scene is once again being shaken by young people who have decided to take direct action against the government, this time over “minor” alterations to high school curriculum guidelines. As with the other youth movements that contested the authorities’ modus operandi in recent years, the participants have shattered the traditional norms of behavior by being loud, scaling walls, and occupying space. Thus challenged, the response by the authorities, school administrators, and members of the ruling party has been to characterize the protesters as “irrational.”

This rhetorical tool was repeatedly used during the campaign against forced evictions in 2013 and in the midst of the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of the Legislative Yuan the following year. In each instance, the government — plus a complicit media and academic sector — countered by saying that while it welcomed disagreement under democratic principles, young people should express their views “rationally.” Needless to say, by rational the powers that be meant playing by rules that were set by the government. It didn’t matter that the government itself had broken every democratic rule in how it had arrived at some of its policies, or that debating officials “rationally” was the surest ticket to defeat. The government knew best, and if society didn’t agree that was because officials hadn’t explained themselves clearly enough.

Two realities stemmed from that assumption: first, the public was too stupid to understand what is in their best interest, and second, persuasion was a one-way street; in other words, debate, public forums and so on would only serve the purpose of changing public perceptions. Policies were not meant to be changed, ever.

Moreover, the government relied on the traditional and hitherto unchallenged notions of filiality and deference to the authorities to ensure success. Consequently, youth were told to know their place in society and not challenge their elders, including a government that stands as the ultimate parent figure.

The “r” word is once again being deployed by the same government and media over the movement that opposes alterations to school curriculum guidelines. Youth are being berated for being loud and messy, and for setting a bad example for society. At the weekend, five universities issued letters condemning their actions and accusing them of irrationality. Some parents meanwhile have come out bemoaning their children’s actions, in some case saying that they have been “possessed by the devil.”

As with past crises, it was the well-entrenched power structure that set the terms of rationality. Youth who broke the law invariably failed the test, whereas unqualified (and in some cases pro-unification) officials that acted unaccountably, in defiance of public beliefs, and possibly in cooperation with an authoritarian regime that seeks to destroy Taiwan’s way of life, were blameless and utterly rational. It didn’t matter either that lawsuits by human rights associations and legislators had demonstrated that the panel which drafted the controversial changes was fraudulent, or that the public discussions organized by the Ministry of Education were, like those held over forced evictions, wind power, and the services trade agreement, a travesty. Or that the textbooks have reportedly already been printed, before the revised guidelines came into force on August 1.

It also made no difference that Minister of Education Wu Se-hwa (吳思華), who has resisted calls for actual dialogue on the matter, had also demonstrated his antidemocratic beliefs during his tenure as president of National Chengchi University (NCCU) by barring students from discussing politics on campus (in recent weeks several young Taiwanese have shared their bad experiences dealing with him when he headed NCCU online).

Though targeted at the changes to the guidelines, the current protest is ultimately about a much larger and fundamental issue. Whether they intended it or not, youth have force society to take a honest look at the systemic problems that exist not only in the education system — which despite Taiwan’s democratization never underwent the necessary reforms — but within society itself, including at home. What we are seeing is nothing less than a generational clash, a desire among young people to break the rules of filial piety whenever such rules serve as justification for inaction and capitulation. Those rules have well served a government that continues to have authoritarian tendencies and that can count on the system to police dissenters in its midst.

This clash was incarnated by Lin Kuan-hua (林冠華), a spokesman for the Northern Taiwan Anti-Curriculum Changes Alliance who committed suicide last week, on his twentieth birthday. A series of Facebook posts by his grieving mother in the past 48 hours suggests that Lin, who was homosexual, did not receive the parental support he may have needed. In fact, his mother’s messages make it clear that Lin, a voracious reader of philosophical works and an I.Q. of 142, lived in a household that discouraged his views and activism, if not his identity as a young homosexual man.

Sadly, it took his death for his mother to realize the truly extraordinary young man who lived under the same roof. “It is people like me, from my generation,” who were “brainwashed,” she wrote, adding that she now fully supported his actions and those of his fellow students. (She also revealed that ministry officials asked her to read from a text, which was recorded, during Minister Wu’s visit to her home after he son’s death. Among other things, the statement said that the family had not been pressured by the ministry.) Not only had her son launched a “free hug” campaign in the Taipei MRT system after a stabbing incident, she wrote, he had also saved most of his allowance to cover expenses for the Taiwan Anti-Curriculum Changes Alliance, such as for printing pamphlets. As a result, he’d cut down his meals to one a day and had visibly been losing weight. (If, as the KMT has alleged, the movement were directed by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Lin wouldn’t have had to use his own money to print the pamphlets.)

School officials twice visited his home after the brief occupation of the MOE on July 23, in which Lin participated. He was among those arrested by police and slapped with a MOE lawsuit. The implicit threat by the so-called educators that his activism risked creating a dead-end future for him undoubtedly pushed Lin over the edge. Quickly thereafter, ministry officials said publicly that Lin was “troubled” and had sought psychological counseling. In other words, Lin had acted “irrationally” and thus the authorities had nothing whatsoever to do with his death. Had he been “rational,” he would not have challenged the authorities, and he would likely still be alive today.

Another example of a stifling parental environment is that of Chou Tian-guan (周天觀), the young man who clashed with his parents at the protest site when they tried to take him away. Pan-blue media feasted on interviews with his tearful mother, who claimed that the Taiwan Northern Society had “brainwashed” him by giving him a copy of a book written by Nylon Chen (鄭南榕), a democracy activist who self-immolated in 1989. The young man had lost his way, his mother said. He was “possessed by the devil,” and the protesters were like Mao’s “Red Guard.” It was soon revealed that Chou had participated in various movements in recent years, including the Christian-led campaign against revisions to Article 972 of the Civil Code intended to legalize same-sex marriage in Taiwan.

Using Facebook, the young man told a very different story. He stated that he had been a nameless person for the entirety of his 17 years, “brainwashed” by his ultraconservative parents and (presumably) forced into participating in activities that he didn’t agree with. He had now found his true self, he wrote, and would do his best to defend Taiwan.

If you want to know what “brainwashing” is, he wrote, “come spend a month at my house.”

For his insubordination, the young man’s parents have threatened to send him to the U.K., where his older brother lives (another brother died several years ago).

Taiwan’s youth are challenging longstanding notions, the party politics, social norms, and an education system that have all conspired to keep Taiwan unable to move forward. Conservative voices are still unable to understand that this generational shift is a durable force and not a tactical instrument wielded by political parties to sow chaos within society or to improve their chances in the next elections. There’s a structural adjustment in the making, one that challenges both ossified institutions in Taiwan and secondarily the narrative that has been written in Beijing. Such a tectonic shift will inevitably cause some rumbling and topple a few flowerpots. But are their actions irrational, when the status quo has become untenable and so utterly out of sync with the identity of this new generation of Taiwanese? Let me answer this by quoting from Arthur Koestler’s (most famous for his prison novel Darkness at Noon) second autobiographical book The Invisible Writing:

“Perhaps it is we, the screamers, who react in a sound and healthy way to the reality which surrounds us, whereas you are the neurotics who totter about in a screened fantasy world because you lack the faculty to face the facts.”


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. His latest book, Black Island: Two Years of Activism in Taiwan, was published in March 2015.


Link analysis of the members of the curriculum revision committee.

13 Responses to “The Powers That Be and the ‘R’ Word in Taiwan”

August 04, 2015 at 1:49 pm, Mike Fagan said:

Yes of course: my apologies.

I agree entirely with the students against the government, their schools, their universities and their parents and you are quite right to point out that this does indeed appear to be a generational shift (though how widespread and deep this may be is another question).

What worries me is the impression that Taiwan’s student protesters have no intellectual rallying point when opposing “authoritarianism” other than “democracy” and that this is an open trapdoor into a kind of “soft totalitarian” politics, in which there are no limits to where political power may be applied so long as democratic procedures are observed. If that happens, then the student protesters of today could find themselves in thirty years time (once they end up in government and the universities) to be mirror-images of the same authoritarians they are trying to fight today.


Regarding UK universities… the notion that they are “depoliticized” is entirely back-to-front: censorship is prevalent to the extent it is, because university students are highly politicized. Feminists, environmentalists and SJWs – the groups usually associated with “the Left” – have all shown an appetite for censorship on campus. (Of course, the current “right wing” UK government has also proven itself to be filled with ban-happy entities such as Theresa May).

When I was doing my postgrad in Edinburgh, I had several Chinese friends with whom I often brought up the subject of Taiwan. At first this was out of genuine curiosity. Later on I did it just to take the piss. “We’ll start restricting your opium if you lot don’t behave yourselves, mind…” And so on.


August 05, 2015 at 6:20 am, Martin Boyle said:

Mike and Michal – I think in my rush to irony and cynicism I may have obscured what I was trying to get at, which was that UK campuses are less conducive arenas than Taiwanese ones for a young man deeply involved in questions of cross-Strait relations.

At the risk of opening myself up to charges of solipsism, I’ve been teaching Taiwanese and Chinese students on UK uni foundation, pre-sessional and in-sessional English-language and research-methods programmes at a range of UK unis, including SOAS, Kent, Leicester, Imperial and QMUL since the mid-1990s. I’ve also been actively involved in working groups looking at the integration of these students into UK campuses. The issues that come up again and again are ‘ghettoisation’ (a word I am uncomfortable with, but one that is used repeatedly by uni admins and English-language support centres) and the use of Mandarin as a lingua franca. In my field, admittedly, we see these as barriers to communicative competence in English, and thus academic performance, rather than political issues. The only time I have ever witnessed any openly political action was in 1996 when some Taiwanese students protested outside ULU in London and that was before mainland students started coming to the UK in large numbers in 1997.

Michal, I suspect that pol/IR students are much more likely to engage in political discussion than the vast majority of students from the greater-China area who tend to go for business and finance-related degrees. Your observation about students forming separate student unions/ groups kind of ties in with the whole integration debate.

Mike – at the risk of giving my age away here – when I was an undergraduate in the early 1980s, universities were much more political and politicised places. From my recent involvement in student union projects that aim to get overseas students integrated, the struggle seems to be an uphill one – particularly with students from the greater-China area, who, after much pleading and cajoling to join a club, inevitably plump for the Chinese Society. Depoliticisation takes many forms – from the naturalisation of a neo-liberal marketised model of education (see Chomsky on this) to the pushing of the Anglo model under the Bologna Process (check out the outrage from continental European academics).. I personally have been ordered by management at one uni to remove ‘political’ questions from an English-language placement test and had ‘politically sensitive’ material from a series of lectures on European Studies censored..

All of this feeds into a discourse that appeals to vague notions of ‘hard work’ and pursuit of career-focused professional and vocational degrees that discourage political engagement. It also aligns to the agenda of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association and the interests of the PRC. I admit, I’m not sure what kind of active interest Taipei takes in Taiwanese student affairs in the UK.


August 05, 2015 at 12:33 pm, Mike Fagan said:

Martin, there is a confusion of shared terminology here. You are using the term “depoliticization” to refer to one thing. I use it to refer to something quite different. These are not the same thing in “different forms”, they are different things entirely. You write about the “naturalization of a neoliberal marketised version of education”, but I would say it isn’t anywhere near liberal or marketised enough. And I would echo this in regard to education in Taiwan: it is simply not enough to reject this or that textbook alteration; the aim, in my opinion, should be to repeal legislation requiring compulsory schooling and the compulsory following of any particular curricula. That would be a step in the right direction.

When I use the term “depoliticization”, it is in reference to a defensive strategy for Taiwan of raising the costs of Chinese annexation by taking an axe to the growth of institutions (such as schools and universities) dependent upon centralized political power. Why are we, in the hypothetical event of Chinese annexation, poised to just hand the Chinese totalitarians everything they need on a plate? I lay the blame for this precisely at the feet of all those who think we can use political powers of taxation, legislation and administration to progressively engineer a “fairer” society.

That is not to say that there aren’t some public goods (economic sense of the term, e.g. national defense, electricity grid etc..) that probably cannot be adequately provided for without some degree of compulsion, but I would bet they are relatively few in number.


August 05, 2015 at 8:25 pm, Martin Boyle said:

Well I guess we’ve staked out our respective ideological positions there, Mike.

The point is, though, whether this kid’s political activism will be tempered if he ends up at a UK university among other students from the greater-China area.


August 07, 2015 at 2:52 pm, Allan Edwards said:

I wonder if it might be fodder for another article or, forgive me if you have already written one, a reiteration of the changes that are causing the backlash. I perhaps have a better understanding of the issue than many who are reading with interest from afar, but I am still unable to answer questions as to what changes in particular are causing the overwhelming reaction to the Ministry of Education. I know I would,d have a better idea if I could read Mandarin but I would be grateful for a clear explanation.

As always, a good article.




August 08, 2015 at 12:46 am, Allan Edwards said:

Thanks Michael,

This is helpful. Best regards to Kettie.




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