Features | Society | East Asia

‘I Could Never Trust Them’: The China Factor in Taiwan’s Youth Vote

The Hong Kong protests are mobilizing Taiwan’s youth ahead of a pivotal election.

By Staś Butler for
‘I Could Never Trust Them’: The China Factor in Taiwan’s Youth Vote

Hong Kong students living in Taiwan and Taiwanese supporters with their eyes covered in red eyepatches, symbolizing a women reported to have had an eye ruptured by a beanbag round fired by police during clashes, hold slogans during a rally in Taipei, Taiwan, Aug. 17, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Chiang Ying-ying

“I think it’s just a process of life. School, army, work. We just have army in between.” Cheng-han pauses for a moment from eating his noodle soup. “I feel like it’s the least you can do for the country. I’m not really a super patriotic person. I’m very politically aware. But then it’s four months, just give it to them.”

In five days’ time, Cheng-han, a 23-year-old recent graduate from Taipei, will leave home to begin his mandatory military service. “I’m really very lucky,” he says. “My grandfather did two years, a lot of my elder uncles also did two years, my dad also did two years.”

He is remarkably calm about the prospect of conflict. Taiwan, after all, is still claimed by China as part of its territory, and Cheng-han joins the military at a moment when the stakes for the island nation could scarcely be higher. While in Hong Kong the Chinese government faces the biggest domestic challenge to its authority since 1989, Taiwan heads to the polls this Saturday in an election pitting the Chinese nationalist pan-Blue coalition against the incumbent Taiwanese nationalist pan-Greens.

Seven months earlier, in June 2019, Cheng-han was studying at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University when large-scale protests erupted over a proposed bill allowing extradition to mainland China. Critics of the legislation saw it as a threat to Hong Kong’s legal system and a means for China to silence political dissent within the region. Following violent clashes with police and the initial refusal of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam to withdraw the extradition bill, protesters began to call for broader political change through a series of reforms known as the “five demands.” These comprise withdrawal of the bill, an independent inquiry into police violence, an end to the use of the word “riot” in reference to demonstrations, the release of arrested protesters, and universal suffrage. Hong Kong authorities formally withdrew the extradition bill on October 23, but other demands remain unmet and protests continue.

While no single demographic has monopolized the Hong Kong protest movement, young people have played a highly visible role. Universities have been hotbeds of anti-government resistance. Hong Kong Polytechnic, Cheng-han’s alma mater, was the scene of a 12-day long siege by police in November. The previous month, Hong Kong authorities sparked outrage by revealing that almost a third of those arrested during protests were under the age of 18. Patrick Chow, a protester recently shot in the stomach by a police officer with live ammunition, is 21 years old.

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It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that in Taiwan, events in Hong Kong have had their most profound effect on the views of young people, many of whom will be casting their ballot for the first time on January 11.

Yun, 27, works in digital design in Taipei and knows several people involved in the protest movement. Has Hong Kong affected the way she thinks about Taiwan’s relationship with China? “For sure. I already knew that China was an asshole. But after everything that happened in Hong Kong, I knew that that could be really worse.

“They promised Hong Kong 50 years of freedom. They’re already breaking it. They couldn’t keep the promise and why would I trust them? I will never trust them. I already didn’t trust them and now it just proves that I could never trust them.”

Taiwan’s relationship with China has a complicated history. For decades after the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the displaced government of the Republic of China, as Taiwan is formally known, claimed to govern both Taiwan and the mainland. In the 1990s, however, the Taiwanese government’s position began to soften toward the idea of Taiwan existing as a separate political entity to China. Today, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), part of the pan-Green camp, views Taiwan’s de facto independence as requiring no formal declaration. The pan-Blue opposition, led by the formerly hegemonic Kuomintang (KMT), advocates closer business ties with the mainland and pursues a status-quo “neither unification nor independence” policy.

President Tsai Ing-wen’s DPP-led government has capitalized on pro-Hong Kong sentiment in Taiwan by voicing support for protesters and refusing to rule out military intervention should mainland forces launch a crackdown. “I think maybe Tsai Ing-wen is really grateful for this,” Yun says. “If the protests didn’t happen, I don’t think a lot of people would wake up and want to vote.”

Cheng-han agrees, but with a note of caution. “I still feel like there are a group of people who think this is never going to happen to Taiwan. And those are the people who are going to stick with the Blue Party.”

Both Cheng-han and Yun are part of a younger generation that considers itself “born independent,” without any of the substantial familial and cultural ties that still bind many of the older generation to the mainland. Similarities with Hong Kong’s so-called “cursed generation,” born the year Hong Kong changed hands from the U.K. to China, are unmissable. “I never had a connection with China. I don’t consider them as my family or something,” Yun says. “For most of the young people in Taiwan we don’t think we are China. We’re not part of them. Why do we have to be part of them?”

Freddy, a 30-year-old IT worker from New Taipei City, is likewise angry at the suppression of a separate Taiwanese identity at international events. “In the Olympic Games they don’t allow us to use our real name, our country’s name. We have to use Chinese Taipei. But our name is not Chinese Taipei. We are Taiwan.”

Generational divides in Taiwanese politics, however, do not neatly separate the old from the young. “For my grandparents, they’re super towards Green because they’ve seen what the Blue, when they first came to Taiwan, have done,” Cheng-han explains, referring to a lengthy period of martial law under the KMT. But then the disastrous premiership of Chen Shui-bian, the DPP’s first president and the first not to come from the KMT’s ranks, turned many away from the party and the pan-Green coalition. Chen’s leadership between 2000 and 2008 is still a source of embarrassment to the DPP, which has attempted to keep Chen from public speaking since his release from a jail term for corruption charges.

But the young’s antipathy toward the pan-Blue coalition and their presidential candidate, the populist firebrand Han Kuo-yu, appears unshakable. Rising from relative obscurity, Han swept to power in 2018 by winning the mayoral contest for Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second-largest city and traditionally a Green stronghold, on the back of a number of outlandish policy proposals, including a promise to bring a Disney theme park and Formula 1 racing to the southern metropolis. He has been criticized on more than one occasion for racist and misogynistic remarks.

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Shane, a 23-year-old artist, had planned to vote for the newly formed Taiwan Statebuilding Party, which holds more radical positions on issues of independence, the environment, and gender representation than the DPP. But the fear of splitting the anti-Han vote pushed him to support Tsai.

“That’s the only option I have. I have no option, because I’m not going to vote for Han Kuo-yu because he’s an idiot. He’s worse than Trump. He’s worse than any politician in the world. Every time I talk about him, I feel disgusted.”

Yun, meanwhile, refuses to use the KMT candidate’s real name in conversation, instead referring to him only as “Korean Fish,” a pun on the Mandarin words for Korea, Hanguo, and fish, yu.

Almost all opinion polling published before January 1, when a period of pre-election silence came into effect, points to a Tsai victory. But recent political history in the United Kingdom gives Yun pause. “It’s really something I’m so worried [about]. I hope it’s not like Brexit. You don’t think it will happen, but it’s happening.”

Parallels between a possible Han presidency and the U.S. election of 2016 are likewise drawn by Cheng-han when asked for his prediction for the result. “I’m pretty confident that Green is going to win. But you never know.

“Donald Trump… you didn’t see him being elected and then he was elected. So you don’t really know.”

But while events in Hong Kong have moved many young people to adopt a more critical position on ties between Taiwan and the mainland, it is clear that many see the struggle against Chinese interference and control as a noble, but ultimately doomed project.

“I really feel like there’s not much you can do,” Cheng-han says. “For our situation, we’re a very small country in the end. We speak Mandarin. Rationally, we should be really collaborating with China because this is the really huge market, the big market, and we speak the same language, and this is one of our advantages in this big world. But are you willing to put your democracy and your whole authority at risk just for this? This is the whole hundred-year debate of Taiwan and I think it’s going to stay like this.

“We’re a very small country. What we can do is just keep holding on.”

Yun is similarly resigned to future rule by Beijing. “In Taiwan, we want to maintain this freedom as long as possible. To be honest, we don’t have that hope. When we talk about this with my friends, we’ll be like ‘yeah, probably we’re just going to become China.’ Because we don’t feel that hope.

“I don’t think this is going to last long. But I hope it will happen after I die.” She laughs morbidly.

“One day, if Taiwan becomes like that, I’d really have to go.” Where to? “I don’t know, maybe the mountains.” She laughs again. “You know, I’ve bought a lot of books about survival skills.”

What comes across in all conversations with young people about Taiwan’s future, however, is not a blind hatred for China as much as a dislike for the lack of freedom of expression and democratic representation in the mainland’s current political system. Over and over again, the importance of democracy comes to the fore. Freddy even goes as far as to say that he would accept unification with China if a referendum result were to decide in favor.

“Because we are a democracy. So I follow what the majority of people decide.”

Yun agrees. “I hate their government. I don’t hate their people.

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“You know, if they had democracy, we wouldn’t defend ourselves or be so against them. We wouldn’t. We would be like ‘sure,’ you know. It’s only because they are that kind of party. They are communists and they control them. They don’t have freedom. And that’s the reason for us to be so against the Chinese government.”

Ultimately, when Yun votes on Saturday, it will be to express support for a continuation of the democratic system of government and freedom of expression hard won in Taiwan after long decades of political repression. These are the common ideals that bind her to protesters in Hong Kong. For Yun, it is all or nothing.

“Why be a human being if you can’t say anything you want?”

Staś Butler is a recent graduate from the University of Oxford, currently studying Mandarin at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei.