In Taiwan, the old guard struggles to win the hearts and minds of the young

Jonathan Sullivan says the use of a common phrase – ‘kids don’t know any better’ – among elders in Taiwanese politics is telling of paternalistic attitudes, but the younger generation is politically active and agitating for change

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 January, 2016, 12:26pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 January, 2016, 12:26pm

When erstwhile Kuomintang presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu, 67, was asked to comment on the suicide of a troubled young man protesting at the national curriculum last summer, her response was sympathetic and in character. “It’s a terrible shame,” she said, adding that “kids don’t know any better” (小孩子不懂事 ).

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The phrase, implying that younger generations don’t understand worldly affairs, is commonly used in Taiwan as a platitude by the supposedly older and wiser to comment on upsets and misguided life choices. It is usually a benign, sometimes indulgent, dismissal of the naive or uninformed opinions of younger people, the verbal equivalent of a pat on the head. In Taiwan, it is also an attitude that has long been deeply embedded in the political culture. But it is no longer sustainable, with significant implications for the forthcoming presidential and legislative elections and the future shape of Taiwanese politics and cross-strait relations.

The notion that wise elders should take care of decision-making, in the family and in politics, has a long history across many cultures. In various guises, it is manifest in “Confucian heritage” societies, in Lee Kuan Yew’s “Asian values” and in the Chinese Communist Party’s longstanding paternalism. It underpinned KMT one-party rule, a time when Taiwanese, like their contemporary mainland counterparts, were upbraided for lacking “quality” (素質) and “civilisation” (文明), and thus not to be trusted with democratic responsibilities. Taiwan’s transition to a flourishing democracy is a constant rebuttal to the self-serving narratives of conservative, change-resistant elites: Taiwanese have proven there is nothing inherent in Chinese or Confucian cultural heritage that disqualifies them from having a fully functioning, vibrant democracy.

The notion that wise elders should take care of decision-making has a long history across many cultures

Yet, the legacy of one-party rule and quasi-Confucian notions did not expire with the coming of elections. Political elites retained their sense, and carefully framed narrative, about knowing what was best for the people. And many citizens, conditioned by decades of priming through the media and education systems, continued to have a narrow understanding of what democracy meant, sometimes complaining to pollsters that democracy was too messy, divisive and complicated.

There is no democratic tradition in Chinese culture, and the late political scientist Tianjian Shi argued that many Taiwanese came to understand democracy via the idea of minben (民本 ), a restricted form of government by benevolent elites that he called “guardianship democracy”. More recent research shows the attitudes towards authority that underpin support for this form of government are not widespread among young Taiwanese. Those aged 19-35 are more supportive of democracy as a political system, and accepting of the noise and contention that accompanies it. And while they are more likely to call themselves Taiwanese, it is identification with democracy that is a crucial part of this trend.

Those who have grown up under a democratic system take for granted liberal democratic norms like freedom of speech, accountability and transparency to a much greater extent than their elders, who had to “learn” them. This attitude change represents a significant challenge to the foundations of “guardian democracy”, which is magnified by the popularisation of digital and social media.

Unlike their parents, younger people have grown up with the norms of internet culture, where there is little deference to authority and obvious scepticism and mistrust of government. Taiwan’s political elites have been scrambling to adapt to a new communications environment where carefully packaged messages are easily subverted and student activists can mobilise in large numbers without any need for political parties or traditional media. This is especially true of a complacent KMT, which has long been overreliant on superior financial resources and machine politics to mobilise support.

There is a clear sense among KMT elites that young voters are important, and somehow different, but they have had trouble updating their playbook. Asking KMT officials about their policies for young people struggling with rising house prices, stagnant wages and the demise of social mobility, I was told that since young voters use social media, a tech-savvy social media team would be hired to reach out to them. My interlocutors did not seem troubled by the fact that videos on YouTube or updates on Facebook are not actually policies. The attitude is symptomatic of the KMT’s dislocation and the pervasive “kids don’t understand” attitude. Another use of the phrase is to dampen youthful idealism; but this is not about idealism. Young Taiwanese want to know if there will be a proper job for them when they finish university, whether they’ll be able to afford an apartment and when compulsory national service will be abolished.

Befitting the generation that has rejected the notion of “guardian democracy”, young Taiwanese are much more politically active than their forbears. The social protests that began with the “wild strawberries” (strawberry being a mildly derogatory term for easily bruised millennials) and culminated in the Sunflower occupation of the legislature, were prompted by policies and performance, but they were equally about President Ma Ying-jeou’s authoritarian and opaque decision-making and lack of government accountability. The Sunflower movement, an amalgamation of disparate interests dissatisfied with Ma, has since given rise to a number of small political parties, with a scattering of committed and charismatic candidates, competing for legislative seats. The last polls before the 10-day pre-election embargo suggests they may win a handful of seats. That would be a remarkable achievement considering how political space is dominated by the two main parties. Converting election victories into usable political influence is another matter, but the demonstration of young people’s preferences and power is already forcing the major political parties to change.

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All candidates in these elections are putting forward policies to address issues facing the young. Some proposals are ad hoc and opportunistic, but the past three years have shown that young people really “do know better”. Generation change is not unique to Taiwan, but it is politically significant given the contours of political competition and the broader context of relations with the mainland. To win the hearts and minds of young Taiwanese voters, political actors pushing for unification will require a demonstrable commitment to democratic norms and practices, including the right to determine Taiwan’s future status. The prospects of that happening are slim.

Jonathan Sullivan is associate professor in contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham