Saturday, March 23, 2013

A new force, the key to Taiwan’s future

Participants at the Losheng 316 rally in Taipei
Through a fledging amalgam of people and organizations, Taiwanese may be leading their nation into a new phase of national consciousness 

I’ve been attending, covering and writing about protests in Taiwan for about seven years now, not only for the entertainment value (though they do tend to be colorful and original), but also because I genuinely believe that they serve as an indicator of social and political stability.

I have noticed in the past 12 months or so an interesting shift in the composition of those who participate in the protests and the frequency with which those protests are held. As I wrote in an editorial last week, not a week goes by nowadays without a protest of some sort being organized, a sign, in my opinion, that the government is failing to address issues that are important to the polity.

Far more important, in my opinion, is the fact that more and more young people are turning out to protest. In fact, in the past year or so, several protest campaigns have been organized by young Taiwanese who mobilized using the most modern social platforms, coordinated with law enforcement agencies, ensured order and security at the events, and led the events. Some have faced arrest, opprobrium by the media, government officials and older people, though they did not allow such reactions to discourage them. Many have done so while writing exams or applying for graduate school.

If we put all the causes together, several thousands of young Taiwanese have rallied on weekends and weekdays, sometimes even spending all-nighters at a time when the rest of the nation was celebrating some holiday or another.

Baby girl at anti-nuclear protest
I always make sure to bring my camera when I go to protests, which hapless me, usually take place on my days off. Using a 45-200mm lens rather than the standard wide lens, I tend to focus more on single individuals than on large numbers of protesters, which allows me to better capture people’s expressions. Eyes are a window to a person’s soul, the saying goes, and to me having the ability to observe people’s eyes reveals a lot about their state of mind and how seriously they take the cause. Anyone who accuses young Taiwanese of political apathy, or of not caring about “real” and “serious” issues, should observe close-up pictures of the participant at the rallies that were held recently in Taiwan. I challenge anyone who looks at those — the protests against media monopolization, against nuclear energy, the destruction of people’s residences at Losheng or on “stolen land” near National Taiwan University — to argue that the young people there aren’t determined, that they are only present to snap pictures and have fun with their friends. The light in their eyes, the steadfastness of their ways, gives me great hope.

As I’ve argued many times before, young Taiwanese will become involved when the issues speak to their own lives and their perceived interests. As such, the composition of the crowd at rallies organized by the green camp targeting “the government,” “the Chinese Nationalist Party” or “China” is usually homogenous — people in their sixties or seventies whose voting behavior is already known (green). Based on my own observations, the ratio of young people to old at those rallies is about 1:10.

Opponent of media monopoly
However, social causes, issues of justice or matters that are seen as having a real, direct and immediate impact on people’s lives, tend to attract people from across the spectrum: university students, young professionals, newly formed families, individuals who have voted for various parties, green and blue, as well as “Taiwanese” and “Mainlanders” (the latter to terms that, in my view, have become meaningless, as all are inhabitants and citizens of Taiwan). For those, the ratio of young-to-old protesters is probably 8:1. The only aberration I’ve seen since 2008 were the protests surrounding the first visit by Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), the then-chairman Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait, which though it attracted mostly people from the green camp, also involved a larger mobilization of younger Taiwanese.

Beyond the protests, symposiums and academic gatherings have also reflected this generational divide. Contrast, say, last Friday’s World Taiwanese Congress (WTC) in Taipei, with the various focus groups and lectures organized to address a variety of issues, from the destruction of private property by the government to the risks posed by the monopolization of the media environment. Truth be told, I skipped this year’s WTC, well remembering the slumber fest that it was last time I went two years ago. It’s little wonder that older Taiwanese believe the younger generations cannot be bothered to become involved in political issues: if the only yardstick used is attendance at lectures (mostly in Taiwanese) in dark conference halls by people who have been regurgitating the same old message for decades, then yes, one could conclude that young Taiwanese couldn’t care less.

Woman at Losheng 316 protest
But that’s not the case; their lack of participation at those events stems from the fact that the issues addressed there are seen as irrelevant to young people’s lives. In many ways, young Taiwanese have moved on and no longer understand political participation as meaning opposition to KMT authoritarianism. Rather than look to the past, they look to the future, harping not on issues that, in their mind, have already been resolved (democracy, identity), but focusing instead on matters of justice, on issues that will directly impact their lives: jobs, salaries, one’s ability to own (and keep) a house, etc. One could even argue that young Taiwanese are applying Nelson Mandela’s message of forgiveness (of past wrongs perpetrated by the Apartheid regime) and inclusiveness (a new South Africa for all its inhabitants, white and black). There is true hope for this nation and its ability to heal from the wounds of the 228 Massacre and the White Terror when young Taiwanese turn out in large numbers to protest at the injustice perpetrated by a KMT government that seeks to demolish houses that have served as homes to “Mainlanders” for decades. Issues of “Taiwanese” versus “Mainlander” are unimportant to them: what matters is the injustice caused by those who wield power against those who do not. And more often than not, those issues of injustice span several years and involve both KMT and DPP administrations.

Kneeling over 3km at Losheng rally
Old arguments about who is a “true” Taiwanese and who isn’t, or how “evil” a supposedly monolithic KMT is, are divisive, and do not build solid foundations for a nation. Solidarity does. And that sense of solidarity appears to be snowballing, with more and more organizations showing support for, and participating alongside, other groups. This cross-pollination of causes has become all the more apparent in recent protests, with young individuals one day rallying against the unfair treatment of laid-off workers, only to show up again a few weeks later leading a group of protesters on a 3km six-step-and-kneel walk to Ketagalan Blvd to oppose the destruction of the Losheng Sanatorium (a perfect example of both DPP and KMT administrations going against the wishes of the people, though to be fair I should point out that the issue of land-grabbing appears to have worsened under the current KMT administration).

Rather than single-issue groups, several organizations, which share similar values, now work together to raise awareness of important issues, and rarely do so through the lens of one’s political preference. In many cases, the organizers would rather that political parties not turn out at their events, or will at least keep them at arms’ length.

Protester at a pro-Tibet rally
Through this fledging, still somewhat rough amalgam of people and organizations — “little platoons,” the 18th-century political thinker Edmund Burke called them — Taiwanese may be leading their nation into a new phase of national consciousness, one that at long last manages to transcend the age-old blue-green, Taiwanese/Mainlander political divide that continues to undermine progress. Little by little, as the causes they espouse attract academics and officials, this emerging movement could coalesce into a third force — a transformative and healing force, one that once and for all could liberate all of Taiwan’s 23 million people from a stultifying status quo that stems directly from an unresolved past, from a past that some people, for various reasons, would rather remained unresolved.

This op-ed was published today in the Taipei Times.

No comments: