Tea Leaf Nation
A Taiwan Where Politics Is Cool
One year after a major student-led protest, a look at how youth activism is faring on the island.
TAIPEI — Over the final weekend in February, a crowd gathered in downtown Taipei for the third annual Gongsheng Music Festival, a combination of hip music and youthful political activism. Twenty-somethings distributed banners and stickers associated political causes ranging from opposition to nuclear power to advocacy for a free Tibet; student-run booths written offerings included odes to Taiwanese independence and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense.
Each year since it happened, Taiwanese have in one way or another commemorated the 228 incident, an ill-fated Taiwanese insurrection on Feb. 28, 1947, against the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) government. What’s different this year, however, is a sense of political awakening among Taiwanese youth since the Sunflower Movement — a 20-day student-led occupation of Taiwan’s legislature, in protest of a trade pact with Mainland China — which marks its one-year anniversary on March 18.
The Sunflower movement helped make politics cool in Taiwan. Fire Extinguisher, a punk band, wrote the movement’s unofficial theme song, “Entitled Island’s Sunrise,” and the entertainer and artist Cheng Chia-chen, also known by her stage name “Chicken Cutlet Girl,” personally joined the occupation. At least 100,000 people converged on central Taipei during the protest’s height.
That youthful activism has since carried over to other activities like Gongsheng. “We’ve seen a lot more interest since the Sunflower Movement,” Yeh Jiunn Tyng, the festival’s founder and a second-year medical student at Yangming University in Taipei, told Foreign Policy. In no small part, youth activism’s momentum comes from a continued alliance with pop culture that has attracted young people to activism’s ranks. The recently founded New Power Party, led by popular heavy metal band Chthonic front man, Freddy Lim, hopes to register 100,000 members by the end of March, and says it will run candidates in the 2016 general election.
At Gongsheng, fashion designers in attendance included the street wear group Revolt, famous for popularizing a black t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “fuck the government.” “I wanted to create a fashion brand that would make protesters cool and trendy,” said Chung Ch’en-wei, the founder of Radicalization. Popular Taiwanese independent music acts like Goosander and singer Panai, whose parents hail from some of the island’s pre-Chinese aboriginal tribes, stocked the line-up. While a formal remembrance for the victims’ families happens every year a few blocks away at 228 Peace Memorial Park, young people have largely gravitated towards this more festive adaptation at Liberty Square, an open space in central Taipei, choosing blaring guitar chords over solemn grievance. “It’s easier getting young people here with a concert than giving them a history lecture,” said Lin Te-fen, a co-organizer of the event.
The newly politically conscious youth have coagulated around inclusive civic ideals and a strong distaste for partisan politics. During the Sunflower movement, students justified their occupation of the legislature less through opposition to mainland China or the KMT — even though they disliked both — than the KMT’s flaunting of democratic procedures when ratifying the trade pact. Students made a point to shame both parties, including the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which staunchly opposed the trade pact, even while DPP legislators enthusiastically voiced their support for the young occupiers.
Indeed, several student activist groups have been founded in the wake of the Sunflower Movement. One group began working to recall legislators who, in their opinion, value party loyalty over representing their constituents. The group, embracing the metaphor of cutting infected flesh from the healthy whole, calls itself the Appendectomy Project. Another group, called Empower, launched an ambitious push for a more democratic political process through constitutional reform. Some youth, including Sunflower leader Chen Wei-ting, charged with mixed success straight into the political process itself, forming independent political parties and running for elected office in order to disrupt Taiwan’s largely stable two-party system.
One way young activists have attempted to raise themselves above the partisan fray is by looking to the past for inspiration. According to Ian Rowen, a fellow at the non-profit Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, Taiwan’s youth have lionized past political figures that have contributed to the public good without attaining elected office, including democracy activists like Cheng Nan-rong and Su Beng — the former self-immolated in protest of martial law. Su, now 97 years old, is a former Marxist revolutionary turn outspoken historian of Taiwanese identity, and the subject of a recently released documentary. Posters for the film have become near-ubiquitous on the walls and windows of some coffee shops and bookstores around Taiwan. “Ten years no one knew about these people, but now they’re everywhere,” said Rowen.
Underlying this initial burst of energy has been a deep-seated anxiety that, with one misstep, this political awakening could fade as quickly as it has appeared. In particular, students appeared concerned the Sunflower Movement would simply become part of Taiwan’s political status quo, where fierce partisanship between KMT and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) produces political intractability. Some questioned whether the students had what it takes to change Taiwan’s sclerotic politics. “You all stayed until 7 p.m. then left,” complained one student during the Sunflower Movement, who asked to speak anonymously.
A year out, youth activism have found mixed success. In the first recall election since 1994, the Appendectomy Project managed to mobilize an impressive 25 percent of KMT legislator Alex Tsai’s constituency in favor of his removal, although that failed to meet the required turnout threshold. The year’s most resounding success came when Ko Wen-je, a doctor who ran as a political outsider for the mayor of capital city and KMT stronghold Taipei, won with the help of many young volunteers. (Ko has since encountered controversy for a tendency toward what a politician might call excessive candor.) Activist Chen Wei-ting ran for legislator in his local district of Miaoli, then quickly dropped out of the race after it was reveal he had sexually harassed multiple women.
In any case, Taiwan’s youth have a decided advantage; they are growing up, and they are eligible to vote. Towards the end of the Gongsheng Music Festival, DPP presidential candidate and current frontrunner Tsai Ing-wen made an unannounced visit. According to organizers, she was refused a speaking slot, though she seemed content shaking hands and browsing the student booths — the youth vote will undoubtedly be critical in 2016. When she came across one activist leader, who previously expressed interest in becoming a DPP member, she reportedly asked, “Have you joined the DDP yet?”