Monday, July 29, 2013

For young activists, the China threat looms large

Critics often say that Taiwan’s youth aren’t aware enough of what’s going on across the Taiwan Strait. But the student movement and its backers do, and they know that their country is at stake

Oh, how often I’ve heard this before, the double-edged encouragement that goes something like this: “I commend Taiwan’s youth for becoming more active politically, but the issues that they are concentrating on — Losheng (樂生), Huaguang (華光), Dapu (大埔), Yuanli (苑裡), media monopolization, workers’ rights, military service, and so on — are too local. Youth should tackle the ‘real’ threat: China.”

In most cases, that half-baked criticism has come from individuals who are not based in Taiwan, who don’t read Chinese, who have not plugged into the various Internet and social platforms that serve as youth’s modern command, control and communications system, and above all, they have not made the effort to get to know the actual players, the new leadership that has emerged in the past year or so. (It should be noted that many of the current leaders are “graduates” of the Wild Strawberries Movement, which points to continuity and rejuvenation rather than to the sudden emergence of something entirely new.)

Those of us who have actually followed the youth movement and the many academics, lawyers, and artists who support them, who have attended their meetings and information sessions, and who have seen them in action as they deliver speeches, get arrested, are dragged away, or are pummeled by riot police, know for a fact that they not only are fully aware of the larger context in which they take action, but that the very thing that motivates their efforts is the desire to prevent their country from being absorbed by China.

In many ways, the activists who have been agitating against the state-sponsored theft of people’s land and personal property, and who are now targeting Cabinet officials for their indifference to people’s suffering, are aware that their actions do not occur in a vacuum; hence the growing desire by some NGOs, such as the Taiwan Rural Front, to internationalize the issues. They know that beyond local corruption by officials like Miaoli County Commissioner Liu Cheng-hung (劉政鴻) there lies an entire system that is focused on self-enrichment at the expense of ordinary Taiwanese, and of Taiwan’s very way of life, if necessary.

Various groups at the LY
If anyone had any doubts about the activists’ ability to “connect the dots,” he or she should have spent some time on Ketagalan Boulevard on Sunday night, where hundreds gathered to protest the cross-strait services trade agreement that the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration is forcing upon an increasingly wary Taiwanese public. He or she would have encountered many familiar faces, the very same student leaders from Taiwan’s top universities who have risen up against media monopolization, the destruction of people’s homes, land seizures, and so on.

They, or at least a good number of them, are aware that behind all that land grabbing, behind all those hugely expensive housing complexes that are currently vacant, exists the very real possibility that this is all meant for Chinese money. Who else is going to invest in those science parks in Miaoli, those palaces in Taipei and Taichung, at a time when foreign direct investment (FDI) is running in he negative, for the first time in four decades? And therefore what are all those trade pacts intended for? For many of them, the services trade pact is a major worry, and what they have been hearing from various academics in recent weeks has certainly not assuaged their fears.

The main difference, and perhaps the reason why youth mobilization remains a rather unknown phenomenon, has been their approach: rather than storm the barricades at the strategic level like traditional defenders of Taiwan are doing at the moment — attack ECFA, attack China, attack the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) — the movement has chosen to tackle matters at the tactical level, from the bottom up, starting with issues that directly affect individuals. It then builds on that momentum, on the lessons learned, to then address the larger, more strategic challenges.

One other reason why it has been easy to discard the movement as irrelevant or naïve is that mainstream media have, for the most part, ignored them, choosing instead to focus on the traditional actors: the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the KMT, the government, and China. But beyond the headlines in the nation’s top newspapers, and behind the sensationalistic platitudes that far too often are regurgitated on popular talk shows, lies an entire world of the instantaneous, electronic, visual, artistic, where rap artists and graphic designers cooperate with graduate students in law, social sciences, political science and philosophy to create a better future for themselves and their country.

Laid-off Workers Alliance
For good reasons, Taiwan’s mainstream media has a rather unenviable reputation for shallowness, fabrication, and sensationalism. But little known to outsiders, Taiwan also has a surprisingly rich and active underground media environment, and this is where activists increasingly turn for information. Unless one pays attention to that environment, and until the time that mainstream media start to take notice of the tremendous potential that lies in today’s angry youth, all that will go unnoticed, and people will continue to criticize activist youth for their naivety and lack of effectiveness. (It is no coincidence that most of this author’s work on ongoing issues like Dapu and Huaguang hasn’t appeared in the Taipei Times, where he works.)

For the time being, mainstream media remain fixated on the forces that are part of the problem, and by doing so they themselves become part of the problem. Politicians have become so inebriated with power, so in deep with their donors and the financial institutions that prop them, that they have lost sight of, or are now unable to meet, their priorities. Too many people in the Ma administration and the KMT have become beholden to large corporations, banks, investors and land developers — and China — to be able to represent the interests of Taiwan’s 23 million citizens. As for the DPP, its politicians are themselves conflicted with their ideals, their financial backers, and have developed tunnel vision in their efforts to win the next elections, with the result that they have become disconnected from reality and unable to formulate policies that have any appeal with the public. With the KMT and the DPP a mess, it’s little wonder that today’s youth, the very people who are making the government nervous with their actions, and who likely constitute the crucial 20% of swing voters, will have nothing to do with them, though by doing so they also ensure that commercial media will continue to ignore them.

Of course, not every young person in Taiwan today is becoming an activist. I sat down with Chris Hughes, Professor of international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE), and other visiting academics on Sunday to discuss various issues pertaining to Taiwan. Youth was a subject that we discussed at length, and the delegation seemed very interested in hearing my thoughts on the recent movements. Hughes nevertheless had a point: for every young Taiwanese who fights for his ideals, there is bound to be another one who will look to China as the source of future money and employment opportunities, especially at a time of economic stagnation in Taiwan and pretty much elsewhere. So we cannot count on all young people to take action, and some in the latter category will likely do everything in their power to dissuade people their age from endeavoring to undo the very system that their future jobs depends on.

Rappers join the fray
Still, the number of activists is swelling, and the language they are using, the symbols they rely upon to express their anger, are changing. Their awareness that Taiwan may be at an important juncture — something the visiting academics sensed as well, pointing out that the Ma administration didn’t seem to have a master plan and therefore may have given the initiative to China — is helping shape their discourse. In the past two months I have noticed a marked hardening in the words used in slogans and art against the government, including the now popular “fuck the government” stickers, the “Today Dapu, tomorrow the government” slogan and the “civil revolt” towels. More and more, I see references to “overthrow,” “bring down” and “cleanse” on various Internet platforms, language that I had rarely seen in my nearly eight years as a journalist in this country.

A growing segment of Taiwanese society has had it with the cynical green/blue politics that have brought this country to a standstill and are making it easier for China to undermine Taiwan’s democracy. At the more granular level, they have also had enough with the facile “this is Miaoli, what do you expect?” remark to encourage inaction against a commissioner who, for far too long, has gotten away with behaving like a warlord.

Lines — dangerous lines — have been crossed, and more risk being crossed soon. Taiwan is fortunate it has a new generation of young, educated and idealistic individuals who will fight for their country. It’s long time we embraced them, just as this nation embraced the heroes of generations ago who fought the first series of battles in this ongoing war. (All photos by the author)

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