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Why Are Taiwanese Youth Protesting Against Legislative Reform?

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Why Are Taiwanese Youth Protesting Against Legislative Reform?

Many young Taiwanese voted for the third-party TPP, but now are opposed to its efforts to push through a new reform package.

Why Are Taiwanese Youth Protesting Against Legislative Reform?

Protesters demonstrate against a legislative reform package under consideration in Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, Taipei, Taiwan, may 24, 2024.

Credit: Facebook/ Taiwan Economic Democracy Union

On the night of May 21, tens of thousands of Taiwanese people, including many college and senior high school students, demonstrated in the rain outside the Legislative Yuan, the parliament of Taiwan. They were opposing a new package of bills that would expand legislative power, proposed by the Kuomintang (KMT) and Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), the two main opposition parties that together hold a majority in the Legislative Yuan. 

The KMT and TPP argued that the proposed legislative investigative powers could effectively check and balance the ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which just started its third consecutive presidential term on May 20, led by Lai Ching-te. The vast turnout of protestors in the rain on a normal weekday evening suggested that the proposed reform is hugely unpopular, however. 

Why do so many Taiwanese youths oppose the reform effort? 

A naive answer would be that those young people were simply mobilized by the DPP to safeguard its ruling power, but this inference is largely unwarranted. Young Taiwanese voters did not embrace the DPP in the 2024 presidential election earlier this year; many of them turned to the newly emerged third party, the TPP. Notably, one key figure of the Sunflower Movement in 2014 – Dr. Huang Kuo-chang– now serves as a TPP legislator. The legislative reform bill was proposed jointly by the KMT and the TPP. Based solely on the youth voting patterns, one might expect young Taiwanese to support the TPP’s reform effort. Yet the opposite has proved true.

On May 19, two days before the large-scale protest outside the Legislative Yuan, the TPP also hosted a demonstration to express dissatisfaction over the past eight years of the DPP administration outside the headquarters of the DPP. The TPP’s demonstration was held on Sunday afternoon to accommodate the schedule of the students, but only 2,000 people showed up – versus over 20,000 at the opposing rally on May 21. It is unlikely that the DPP, through party identification alone, could mobilize ten times more young people than the TPP did – and on a regular weekday afternoon, merely two days after the TPP’s protest. 

So why did young people turn up en masse to protest against a bill that is supposedly meant to fight corruption and check the government? Many young Taiwanese found the legislative investigation bill problematic for three reasons. 

First, the KMT and TPP tried to pass the bill forcibly, with unnecessary haste. DPP legislators tried to propose parallel bills or negotiate some articles before the bill’s second reading, but all attempts were blocked by the KMT and TPP and were never even considered on the floor. During the second reading on May 21, Han Kuo-yu, the president of the Legislative Yuan and a KMT legislator, announced that specific votes would not be recorded and he would ignore all headcount motions. 

The bill’s final version was negotiated by the TPP and KMT secretly and was not made available even to legislators until the second reading of the general session started. This move considerably reduced young people’s trust in the bill, as seen by the chants of many protesters on the street: “no dialogue, no democracy.”

Second, the KMT and TPP’s forcible push for the bill also made young people doubt their motivations. Before the second reading, the Taiwan Bar Association and many law scholars had warned that parts of the bill may be unconstitutional and should be revised at least. The timing added to the cloud of suspicion, as the KMT caucus whips started pushing for the bill right after a large group of KMT lawmakers visited China in late April

Huang Kuo-chang, now a TPP legislator, made a name for himself during the 2014 Sunflower Movement because he loudly accused the KMT of forcibly pushing for the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement. When Huang served as a legislator between 2016 and 2020, he remained an active critic of the KMT. But now, his party is closely tied with the KMT. Hence, many former participants of the Sunflower Movement see Huang as a betrayer, as they also question the motivations of the KMT. During the second reading of the bill, many protesters angrily yelled, “Huang Kuo-chang, the hypocrisy!” outside the Legislative Yuan. 

Third, many protesters wonder if the bill proposed by the KMT and TPP over-expands the power of legislators. According to Articles 47 and 48 of the proposed law, legislators may investigate any officials, military personnel, judges, businesses, and even ordinary people. Besides, legislators may request all “needed” documents, and absences need to be approved by the legislators themselves. The abuse of such power could easily jeopardize the regular function of the government, influence the judicial process, and may be harmful to Taiwan’s national security, especially since one KMT legislator was accused of leaking submarine secrets to China. 

In 2016, the DPP also proposed a similar bill, but it withdrew the bill quickly because of constitutional concerns and criticisms. Since the Taiwanese people also have a low level of political trust in the Legislative Yuan, they hesitate to let legislators expand their power arbitrarily. Unfortunately, the China factor also plays a role in the lack of trust, given the KMT’s recent China visits. 

Because of the large-scale protest on May 21, the second reading of the bill failed to complete the process before adjournment at 11:59 p.m. However, the KMT and TPP vowed to complete the second and third readings on Friday, May 24. Therefore, protesters prepared for an even larger demonstration that day. Ahead of time, many young Taiwanese voters and students were showing the train and bus tickets they just booked on Threads, a newly emerged social media platform for the young generation

One again, over 20,000 protesters gathered outside the Legislative Yuan on May 24 to call for the bill to be withdrawn. Organizers estimated that, at the peak, over 100,000 people turned out. Parallel demonstrations were held in cities across Taiwan, including Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung. The KMT and TPP had continued to vote through individual articles of their reform bill on the second reading, but did not complete the process. Another session is scheduled for May 28, and protest organizers are already calling for another demonstration that day as well.

The struggle in the legislature is not limited to this reform effort. There are several controversial acts under review that may influence the power of the executive branch and the judicial process in terms of budget and personnel appointments. The disputes will definitely continue in the following session. Many are concerned that Taiwan’s ongoing military reforms may be delayed, as KMT legislators have vowed to decrease the defense budget and threatened to cancel the main projects like the indigenous submarine.

Taiwan’s internal political turmoil may continue for another four years as long as the current divided government remains. The outcome of this legislative gridlock may further shape the balance between the United States and China in East Asia, given Taiwan’s critical role in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy and competition with China.

Guest Author

Austin Horng-En Wang

Austin Horng-En Wang is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Follow on X: @wearytolove

Guest Author

Fang-Yu Chen

Fang-Yu Chen is an assistant professor of Political Science at Soochow University, Taiwan. Follow on X: @FangYu_80168

Guest Author

Charles K. S. Wu

Charles K. S. Wu is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of South Alabama. Follow on X: @kuanshengtwn

Guest Author

Yao-Yuan Yeh

Yao-Yuan Yeh is the Fayez Sarofim – Cullen Trust for Higher Education Endowed Chair in International Studies, chair of International Studies & Modern Languages Department, and chair of Political Science Department at the University of St Thomas, Houston. Follow on X: @yeh2sctw