Demand for generational justice and the 2020 Taiwan presidential election

Taiwan Insight
Date: 31 July 2019
By: Tanguy Lepesant

Image credit: Sunflower student movement in Taiwan by Artemas Liu/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

During the 2016 election campaign, Tsai Ing-wen and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) emphasised “generational justice” in order to both criticise Ma Ying-jeou’s economic policies and attract youth votes. The DPP highlighted stagnant low wages, poor working conditions, and pressure from free trade agreements with China on Taiwan’s democratic system. These campaigns resonated with youths already participating in large scale social movements such as the 2014 Sunflower Student Movement. Studies show that Taiwanese youths believe their quality of life as adults will be worse than their parents‘ and that they are victims of “generational injustice”. They believe they have been deprived of their “right to a good quality of life” by their elders whom benefited from Taiwan’s economic miracle and accumulated wealth at the expense of environmental protection. They believe these elders have unjustly monopolise power over all decision-making processes through a strictly age-based vertical hierarchy.

Taiwanese under 40 constitute roughly one third of the entire electorate and are mostly swing voters. They will again be a key factor in the 11 January 2020 presidential election. Youth voters were crucial to Tsai Ing-wen’s 2016 victory but then have shown signs of disappointment since then deserted the DPP during the November 2018 local elections. Yet, voters under 40 contributed significantly to Tsai’s victory over Lai Ching-te in the DPP primary, showing that she has not completely lost her political appeal. The role of youth voters in the upcoming election is still uncertain, but a generational analysis can help us understand this highly volatile context.

Surveys and interviews I conducted during the past fifteen years show the existence of a specific “post-democratic reforms generation” born after 1980. In terms of socio-political values and positions, the generation can be schematically portrayed following its “red lines”, “distrusts” and “concerns”. The red lines are non-negotiable aspects of young Taiwanese lives and selves: identification with the democratic system of a sovereign Taiwan distinct from China; the defence of core values deriving from human rights that tend to make them more progressive than their parents and grandparents; and the rejection of “political polarisation” based mainly on ethnic division and conflicts between older generations of waishengren (mainlanders) and bendiren (locals). Consequently these youths are averse to both ends of the political spectrum that promote either unification with China or radical ethnic Taiwanese nationalism. Facing mounting Chinese pressure, they favour a status quo defined as the defence of a de facto sovereign and independent Taiwan.

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