Wan-Jung Cheng was in the McDonnell International Scholars Academy and a Taiwan Ministry of Education Fellow. She is an alumna of McDonnell Academy partner National Taiwan University—Taipei, Taiwan. She received her PhD degree in Economics from the Graduate School at Washington University in St. Louis in 2017. She is currently an assistant research fellow at Academia Sinica in Taipei, Taiwan.
The Rise of Civic Consciousness in Taiwan
What does the life of an ordinary young citizen in Taiwan look like? In a society which places great value in credentialism, all we strived for before the age of eighteen was to get high test scores in order to attend college. Upon attending college, we entered the stage of preparing ourselves for high-paying jobs, or a higher-level diploma. We were not encouraged to spend time and attention on things unrelated to exams, that is, things that will not help us to “succeed.” This is the typical child-rearing principle of Taiwanese parents. The result is that we were not very aware of what was going on in the community. If you randomly picked a youngster on the road, he/she would most likely be unaware of the current noteworthy issues in Taiwan, not to mention world issues. This phenomenon may surprise you, though it is definitely no surprise to us. Fortunately, things have now changed in Taiwan!
Starting from mid-2013, several incidents in Taiwan triggered the rise of civic consciousness, especially for young people. In July 2013, there was an outrageous land expropriation, in the name of urban renewal, by the government in a rural township named Dapu. More than twenty thousand protesters, mostly young people, including students, academics, artists, and NGO members, gathered around the Office of the President and the Department of the Executive to accuse the government of depriving people of their property. They chanted “Today you tore down Dapu. Tomorrow we tear down the government!” At about the same time, another wave of public anger was catalyzed by the death of a 24-year-old corporal during his compulsory year of military service. The corporal died of heatstroke caused by excessive exercise punishment in searing summer heat. Nearly a quarter million people gathered to protest against human rights violations in the military and its corrupt investigative system, and hundreds of thousands of online users showed their support by sharing information via social media channels. The majority of participants in these events are believed to be young people in their 20s. Many perceived this event as a new milestone of social movement activity for young Taiwanese.
Since then, it is fair to say that Taiwan has erupted in a succession of civil movements led by young citizens. The key characteristics of the movements by the younger generation include the heavy use of information technology and social media, and more important, these movements include novel ideas that may bring about new possibilities. A notable example would be the Sunflower Student Movement in early 2014. At 4:00 am on March 19, 400 students slipped in and occupied the parliament in Taiwan, for the first time in history.
They were protesting against the government’s lack of transparency for a service trade agreement being rushed through the legislature and against the government’s unresponsiveness to people’s voice and concerns. Around ten thousand protesters surrounded the parliament day and night. They set up a 24-hour live broadcast stream of the protest, live text feeds of important events, and transcripts of daily meetings by the leadership. This movement emphasized “open government” and “social engagement,” which are reactionary appeals against the current political culture. Their main website was a lively and publicly accessible platform, in the spirit of making the government more transparent to the public, and encouraging everyone to participate. There were also collaborative projects that established an open-source database, including digitizing paper-based government data, systematizing and visualizing existing public data for the sake of informativeness, and persistently collating up-to-date government releases.
Their ideas spread very quickly and led to around half a million people participating in the rally, just twelve days after the start of the occupation. More importantly, the “civil participation” ideal has now taken root in young citizens’ minds, and has grown even sturdier once the occupation was brought to an end. One can feel that Taiwanese society is undergoing important fermentation and transformation among young people. We hope this positive trend will persist and eventually lead to a more healthy political environment and make Taiwan a more democratic society.