Tea Leaf Nation
Taiwan’s Kids Are Not All Right
Angry youth swept Tsai Ing-wen to the presidency. They may also threaten her ability to govern.
TAIPEI — Taiwan’s president-elect appeared to have a heavy cold. Her voice nasal and a bit gravelly, she took sips from a small flask. It was late on the night of her electoral victory, and thousands of people packing the pavement in front of her campaign headquarters had been waiting since early afternoon, roaring each time a giant screen displayed another million votes for “Little Ing” and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) she leads. “Everyone thinks I’m too rational, that I never publicly express my emotions,” Tsai told the assembled crowd, eliciting a laugh. “If everyone is really very happy, let’s all give one big cheer for Taiwan, all right?” There was a slight pause, and then the crowd obliged. Amid the bullhorns, chanting, and drumming, the former academic seemed slightly out of place, as if she were still behind a lectern. The cheer was still heartfelt, but the moment also crystallized a dilemma that will define Tsai’s new presidency: her cautious, measured tones, set against the urgency that propelled her supporters, many of them young, into politics in the first place.
Tsai owes much of her success to younger voters. They not only want economic reform, but insist that Taiwan be a “normal country,” distinct from mainland China, which lies across the Taiwan Strait and considers the self-governing island of 23 million to be part of its sovereign territory, one that will eventually be re-absorbed. Young voters’ impatience with stagnant economic growth, rising inequality, and cozier ties with Beijing propelled Tsai to victory, but could easily turn against her if she does not respond quickly enough to their demands. As Tsai readies for her inauguration on May 20, it is unclear how much leeway her supporters will give her, all cheering aside.
It has been just over two years since Taiwan’s youth frustration reached a boiling point. In March 2014, hundreds of students and other mostly young protesters anxious about the effect of cross-strait economic enmeshment on Taiwan’s freedom and sovereignty occupied the legislature in an attempt to block one of the latest pending trade pacts with China. In what came to be called the Sunflower Movement, protesters camped out in the Legislative Yuan for weeks, barricading doors with chairs and broadcasting objections to the deal on Twitter and Facebook. (The pact remains mired in the legislature.)
The Sunflower Movement marked a political awakening for a generation sometimes dismissed by their elders as spoiled, soft “Strawberries.” It was these erstwhile Strawberries that helped revive the fortunes of Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party, once in tatters; Chen Shui-bian, the country’s only other DPP President, was wildly unpopular by the time he finished his term in 2008 and was jailed for corruption shortly thereafter. They registered to vote, and propelled new, pro-independence parties like the New Power Party into seats in the legislature. It is thanks in part to young and first-time voters — nearly three-quarters of voters aged 20 to 29 turned out to vote — that she will occupy the presidential palace on Ketagalan Boulevard on May 20th, becoming the first woman to do so.
Voters are determined that the election of Tsai, head of the “green” or independence-leaning DPP, along with Taiwan’s first DPP-majority legislature, will mark a change from the past eight years. Under outgoing President Ma Ying-jeou’s Kuomintang administration, Taiwan signed 23 cross-strait agreements, thanks to his “blue” — generally pro-reunification — majority in parliament. But the young did not see themselves benefitting: the starting wage for college graduates remained stagnant.
Tsai has already managed to disappoint young supporters even before assuming office. In April, the DPP she leads released a draft of a cross-strait agreement supervision bill — intended to ensure rigorous oversight and public participation in decisions about agreements with China — that was one of the Sunflower Movement’s main demands. It received blistering criticism from the movement’s participants for failing to clarify how civic groups could participate in the evaluation process, and for failing to guarantee that final decisions on cross-strait agreements would be made transparently and collectively. This may be a preview for what Tsai can expect after she takes power. Former participants in the Sunflower Movement and those who have become politically active in its wake feel they have a responsibility to exert pressure on the new government; they see themselves, not Tsai or the DPP, as the vanguard of change.
Emotional longing among Taiwanese to become more of a “normal country” is growing, and support for the DPP’s “green” agenda is deepening. At present, 21 mostly poor nations in Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean and the South Pacific (as well as the Vatican) recognize Taiwan — but not major powers like the United States, and certainly not mainland China. To young Taiwanese who grew up watching two local parties jockey for power in democratic elections, Chinese grassroots online nationalist rhetoric referring to Taiwan’s president as a “provincial governor” sounds absurd. Changes to history textbooks under former president Chen also mean that the young generation has learned to think of Taiwanese history as distinct. To them, Taiwan is already a country in all but name.
Meanwhile, Beijing’s ham-handed approach to projecting influence has backfired badly with young Taiwanese. Lawrence Chiang, who was studying in South Korea on the cusp of Taiwan’s presidential election, bought a ticket home to vote after he saw Chou Tzu-yu — a sixteen-year-old Taiwanese pop star with the South Korean band Twice — appearing in a widely-circulated video, bowing and abjectly apologizing for having waved Taiwan’s national flag on television. (The video was released by her South Korean talent agency, which had seen its performance on China’s popular New Year’s Eve television program cancelled in the backlash.) “There is only one China … I have always felt proud to be a Chinese,” Chou said in the video, reading from a piece of paper, seemingly on the verge of tears.
“I thought, this young girl is only 16 years old, much younger than me, but it seemed like the kind of pressure being put on her was more than the average person could take,” Chiang said. “Then I got a little angry.” An argument with his roommate, whose father was Chinese, and who pointed out that those hoping to earn money in China might be expected to offer such an apology, made up Chiang’s mind. He cancelled his vacation plans and booked a ticket leaving for Taipei hours later; he had voted for Tsai by day’s end.
Singer Chou’s helpless expression, a galling metaphor for Taiwan’s position on the international stage, was especially potent because it highlighted the perils of economic dependence on China. Just how Tsai will balance the expectation of increased independence from China with her supporters’ other major expectation of increased jobs and prosperity is unclear. China, including Hong Kong, absorbs more than 40 percent of the exports on which Taiwan’s economy heavily depends. Even Chiang, looking toward life after graduation, admitted he would prefer to work in Taiwan, but “probably wouldn’t reject the idea of going abroad, if there are better opportunities there.“ This includes China. He said he will not vote for Tsai again if she draws Taiwan too close to China, yet would also consider other candidates if the economy were suffering because of worsening relations with the mainland. Charles Liang, another student who says he voted for Tsai, observed that “everyone wants to share in this enormous pancake of the Chinese market,” adding that Taiwan has an advantage in terms of language and proximity. After graduation, he also plans to seek work in China, which offers a higher starting salary for journalists, Liang’s chosen profession. In one recent survey, over 60 percent of Taiwanese aged 20 and 35 said they planned to leave Taiwan to find work.
This is Tsai’s conundrum. Both Liang and Chiang hail from National Taiwan University, one of Taiwan’s top universities, but unless Tsai can keep talented youth at home by offering a chance at success — funding innovation, and finding a way to provide more affordable housing when Taipei has become one of the least affordable cities in the world — she risks losing both their skills and their votes.
To avoid this fate, Tsai will try to juice growth and reduce inequality while also lessening economic dependence on China, primarily by diversifying. She has proposed a New Southbound Policy, which aims to develop more economic and cultural exchanges with Southeast Asian countries and India. She also aims to include Taiwan in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a potentially massive 12-nation agreement currently stalled in the U.S. Congress — and to expand trade with Japan. But Tsai’s policies will take time to work. Meanwhile, “everyone expects an economic crisis in China,” said Professor Lucy Liu, an economist at the Sun Yat-sen University School of Management in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, although “no one knows when.”
It is not clear how much slack Tsai’s young supporters are actually willing to give her. The spirit of distrust toward establishment politics that animated the Sunflower Movement — and a renewed sense of the power of civic protest — continues to spread. Young people who voted for Tsai or even worked for her party are still committed to organizing outside the system to influence events within. On a windy spring day in Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, three members of a group called Youth Against Oppression in Taiwan shivered as they posed for photographs with overseas Taiwanese holding signs that read, “Taiwan is a Country” and “U.N. Membership for Taiwan.” Wu Chun-yan, who participated in the day’s demonstrations and co-founded the group, said he hopes to sway Taiwanese public opinion back home, once the group’s U.S. tour is over.
The very movements that propelled Tsai to victory now stand ready to challenge her. Lin Fei-fan, one of the leaders of the Sunflower Movement, announced as students vacated the legislature in April 2014 that they “would definitely be back” if they found the government had not made the changes they consider necessary. “If one day the results and promises we have reaped are once more ripped up by the governing party,” he said, the protesters would stage “even more comprehensive, more widespread resistance.” In the run-up to Tsai’s inauguration, Lin’s words are being invoked again on social media.
Tsai’s rhetoric is not nearly as bold as some of her supporters. Her cautious approach served her well in academia, and may yet help deflect confrontations with Beijing. She does not use the term “independence” in her speeches. Instead, she emphasizes Taiwanese identity. This balancing act was evident in a measured statement at her victory rally. “The results of today’s election prove to the world that the Taiwanese are a free people; the Taiwanese are a democratic people,” Tsai told the assembled throngs. “As long as I’m president, I will work to make sure that not one of my citizens ever has to apologize for their [national] recognition.” The line earned perhaps the loudest cheer of the night, a subtle signal that Tsai, like her supporters, sees Taiwan as a distinct and internally coherent entity. In such a giddy setting, it was enough. But the forces that brought Tsai to power do not share her subtlety. They may end up sweeping her along, or aside, no matter what her careful plans.
Correction, May 18, 2016: Charles Liang was interviewed for this article. An earlier version misspelled his name as Charles Lin.
Philippe Lopez/Getty Images