Saturday, September 08, 2012

A manifesto for Taiwan’s youth

Young Taiwanese showed up ready to shoot
The challenge is formidable. It’s up to you to decide how, when and where to confront it 

It is difficult to imagine how one could not have been moved by the thousands of young people who gathered last Saturday, armed with determination, humor, wit and a cornucopia of effigies, placards, banners and costumes, to protest against what they fear is the eventual emergence of a “media monster” should the Want Want China Times Group be allowed to expand its empire. 

Although calculating turnout is never an exact science, it is fair to say that the crowd, made up almost entirely of young people, numbered in the thousands and was substantially larger than the organizers — journalist associations, student organizations and various civic groups — had expected. 

In the days prior to the protest, held to coincide with Reporters’ Day, young Taiwanese launched sustained efforts online to mobilize like-minded individuals and encourage them to turn up on Saturday. From videos teaching warm-up exercises and protest slogans to messages reminding people to avoid violence and not to litter, organizers of all stripes once again exhibited an uncanny ability to turn modern media to their advantage. In many ways, this was reminiscent of the Wild Strawberry Movement’s use of Webcasts in 2008 and 2009 to bring their protests against the Parade and Assembly Act (集會遊行法), which they deemed was “unconstitutional,” to the world.

Young people protest
There is no hiding the fact that today’s young Taiwanese have a rather regretful reputation for not involving themselves enough in politics. It is often said of them that they care more about video games, KTV or dating (or heaven forbid, their schoolwork) than the fate of their country and its democracy. Judging from the usual composition of the crowds that turn up at large protests, such criticism would appear to be justified. Accused thus, young Taiwanese will usually respond by stating their aversion to party politics, which they regard as a hodgepodge of cronies and cynics bickering not for the sake of the country, but rather for their own selfish interests. They will also point out that the majority of protests have been hijacked by the major political parties, turning perfectly legitimate expressions of dissatisfaction into mere electioneering opportunities. 

This is not to say that today’s youth is unmoved by what’s going on around them, or that they will not act when their interests — and the issues that matter to them — are threatened. Saturday’s protest, the largest turnout of young people, it must be said, in 22 years, was evidence that young people can and will act, but will do so only when they are confident enough that by participating they will not become the tools for politicians. One of the main reasons why the young turnout was so high last weekend was the organizers’ insistence that political parties not take over the protest or bring the usual party flags and paraphernalia, a request that was respected. (Former premier Yu Shi-kyun of the Democratic Progressive Party and Lin Huo-wang (林火旺), a former adviser to President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), were present, but kept a low profile and showed that when it matters, the green-blue divide can be transcended. One wonders if only young people have what it takes to make politicians work together rather than tirelessly snipe at one another, to the detriment of this country.) 

Saturday, added to the hundreds of young Taiwanese who mobilized in London and on the Internet during the Olympics this summer to protest against the removal, following pressure from China, of the Nationalist flag, gives us reason for hope. After all, the future of this nation depends on its youth, and its future leaders will also emerge from this generation. The world they inhabit will be a consequence both of what the current leaders make of it and of youth’s ability to shape its development.

Fighting is hard work...
Now, some people, usually those who complain about the lack of political participation by young people, will argue that student protesters are somewhat “naïve” if they think they can bring about change without the legitimization that only political parties can provide, or adopt strategies that reflect those that have prevailed in past decades. Some have already argued that Saturday’s protest will likely not have any impact on the National Communications Commission’s (NCC) ruling on the Want Want bid for China Network Systems’ TV stations, to which we could shoot back: How more successful have the much larger, opposition party-led protests held in the past four years in dissuading the Ma administration from embarking on a set of policies that, in their view, endangers Taiwan’s sovereignty and way of life? 

Young people know which issues matter to them, and the reason why issues of social justice, rather than politics, are closer to their heart stems partly from the conscious decision by the previous generation — their parents’ generation — to avoid discussing politics, either out of fear following decades of White Terror, or because the subject is so painfully divisive.

That said, rather than confront politics head on, in most cases social justice, from the seizing of farmers’ land by the state to the destruction of residences by municipal authorities, or young people’s inability to find good jobs or to buy a house after graduation, is related to politics. Not only that, but it is becoming increasingly evident that social justice in Taiwan will be affected by the political decisions made by Taiwanese government officials, especially on the issue of Taiwan’s future and relations with China, which have direct ramifications for freedom of speech and treatment of minorities. At some point — and we may be on the verge of an awakening — young people will realize the immensity of the challenges that lie ahead, and that if they do not take action, decisions will be made in their name that risk compromising their future.

Young protesters gather
To the young Taiwanese who dedicated time and energy organizing the 9/1 protest and who spent hours on a beautiful day earnestly assuming their civic responsibilities rather than, say, play video games: Do not ever listen to those who would discourage you from acting again, or who show disdain for what you have accomplished. Usually, such criticism comes from a misunderstanding of what matters to you, or from individuals who fear they will become irrelevant if they pass the baton to the next generation. Your actions were a sign of maturity, not naivety, and the significance of what you accomplished has been noted by supporters and opponents alike. Moreover, success will be measured by much more than whether the NCC approves the deal or not, but by how you continue the fight.

One thing is certain: The battle for one’s rights, and ultimately for the future of this wonderful nation, is a long one, one that must be sustained and waged on many fronts. Armed with the knowledge of what is important to you and with tremendously empowering skills and tools at your disposal and by harnessing modern technology, you can have a long-lasting impact on those around you and those who will come after you. Decades ago, when freedom seemed but an elusive dream amid the darkness of authoritarianism, people with dreams and aspirations just as big and honorable as yours, people of a similar age, defied power and ultimately prevailed.

You are no less empowered, and arguably more so today. But the challenge is as formidable. It’s up to you to decide how, when and where to confront it. An edited version of this article appeared in the Taipei Times on Sept. 11.


Mike Fagan said...

Whilst I applaud your effort to encourage young Taiwanese to act in response to the ethical imperatives underlying politics, it is vital not to get caught up in the epistemical warp of politics. You yourself are even guilty of this...

" most cases social justice, from the seizing of farmers’ land by the state to the destruction of residences by municipal authorities..."


The recent land theft cases in Miaoli and Taipei were about justice, plain and simple - the violation of the right to private property - they were not about "social" justice, which, if the modifier is to mean something clear and definite (rather than just anything at all), involves judging the "fairness" of outcomes by reference to an egalitarian standard.

But that is irrelevant to either the Wang's case in Taipei or the cases in Miaoli two years ago.

Those people had their right (i.e. a moral sanction properly described as universal in scope, not "egalitarian") to decide what to do with their own property violated by a Taipei City government. That was a straightforward injustice, and to call it "social" is - at best - a tautology.

I might also mention here that I found it especially infuriating that, in the wake of the Wang incident in Taipei, your paper carried a series of wormtongue editorials by various academic hacks trying to pass off an approval of the principle on which the Taipei City government acted whilst trying to look for all the world as if they condemned what was done to the Wangs.

That was similar to the dynamic of politicians trying to feed off popular resentment to their own benefit. And not a single word was allowed to stand against these "profs".

That was truly disgusting.

Anonymous said...

You do realize picking apart some bloggers syntax for not conforming to a libertarian worldview is considered a form of trolling?

Mike Fagan said...

Syntax cannot "conform" to a libertarian or any other system of ethics; that's a category error.

Not that I expect someone who conflates criticism with "trolling" to understand this.

Anonymous said...

If the writer of this blog found your 'criticism' in any way fruitful to the discussion I'd imagine he'd engage you in a reply but when it rests on the argument the term social justice is bullshit then its a non starter. Repeadetly making arguments that depend on accepting a worldview held by a confused few is definitely trolling.

Mike Fagan said...

"...when it rests on the argument the term social justice is bullshit then its a non starter."

That isn't what I said.

What I said was that it is bullshit to designate the violation of private property rights as an instance of social (in)justice.

I did not say that the term "social justice" is bullshit.

What I said there was that J.M.'s use of the term was unwarranted because either the modifier "social" is redundant, or becuase the term implies an egalitarian notion of "justice" which is itself incompatible with individual property rights.

Just to raise that point to a greater level of clarity: it is upon the egalitarian notion of "social justice" that various claims as to "the public interest" may be founded in the form of vague aggregate outcomes (e.g. "the nation's economic development"). These claims can then be employed to excuse the violation of the rights of individual people - for "the greater good".

For that reason, it is a logical error to oppose violations of individual rights on the basis of "social justice".

"Repeadetly making arguments that depend on accepting a worldview held by a confused few is definitely trolling."

I see. So in your view, the truth or merit of an argument depends merely on how many people agree with it; the "few" can always be dismissed as "confused" on account of their numerical inferiority.

That is the democratic embrace of the might=right equation.

My comments are criticism, not "trolling", and I don't give a damn if it makes me unpopular.