Vol. 2, Issue 33
The Global Taiwan Brief Volume 2, Issue 33
Shining a Light on Dark Times
By: Melissa Newcomb
Generational Values: Civic Rights and Identity
By: Jennifer Lu
Democratic Youth Movements in South Korea: Past, Present, and Future
By: Andrew I. Yeo
China’s Narrative for Social Control in Hong Kong
By: Johnson Yeung
This week’s issue is the third of the Global Taiwan Brief’s curated series. The curated GTBs are special issues that focus on a central theme. The theme of this issue is on democratic youth movements in Asia, featuring the experts who spoke on the panel for the public seminar, “Leave those Kids Alone: Democratic Youth Movements in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea” which took place on June 28, 2017.
Shining a Light on Dark Times
Melissa Newcomb is the research manager at the Global Taiwan Institute and associate editor of the Global Taiwan Brief.
This curated edition of the Global Taiwan Brief features articles by those who spoke at the first panel of the Civil Society and Democracy series, a set of public seminars partially funded by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy looking at Taiwan’s democracy in the context of political developments in the region. The panel titled, Leave those Kids Alone: Democratic Youth Movements in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea, was an attempt to bridge the seemingly disparate fights for LGBT rights in Taiwan, democratic governance in Hong Kong, and against political corruption in South Korea, to better understand what these dynamic social forces in East Asia have in common and may mean for democratization in the wider region.
Over the past few months I have had the opportunity—and the privilege—to interview a wide array of young civil society leaders from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. I have also had the opportunity to talk to academics who follow current events in East Asian democracies, to get a better sense of the context for recent social movements. In addition, it may be worth mentioning that I have increased my personal involvement with local democratic grassroots organizations in the United States since the 2016 election. What I have found, across the various nascent movements, is that young people are leading the charge to hold their governments accountable to democratic ideals.
Young revolutions are both old and new: not unique to any single generation, but each formed in a unique and specific context. What is most striking is that the current cycle of youth-led movements follows a generation that may be called complacent, a complacency born from economic progress—or the illusion of economic progress, depending upon whom you ask. The idea that civil and human rights must sometimes be sacrificed for the sake of economic wealth is a false narrative that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) uses against Hong Kong, as Johnson Yeung writes about in his piece. A lack of economic progress, however, is what pinches young people in South Korea, spurring them to lash out against corruption in their highly-regarded education system; but that same economic pressure keeps young people focused on their careers, rather than civic engagement, Dr. Andrew Yeo asserts in his article. In the case of LGBTQ rights in Taiwan, which Jennifer Lu addresses here and is extensively involved in, the push for marriage equality found new life after the Sunflower Movement, itself motivated in part by fears of deepened economic dependence on China.
Does economic success go hand in hand with liberal democratic progress, as many people argue, or must human rights be sacrificed for material gain? Lately, it appears to me to be more nuanced—that economic gains must first be made, then lost, for people to realize that when their livelihoods are threatened, the only real bulwark against assaults on dignity and quality of life is a society in which human rights are protected.
At the time of this writing, three prominent youth activists in Hong Kong have just been jailed (Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow). Chinese human rights champion Liu Xiaobo passed away under guard even as he drew his dying breath. Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-cheh remains in illegal detention, last seen in the PRC. Only a few weeks ago, Charlottesville, Virginia, was the site of terrible violence against peaceful protesters. These are dark times for human rights; but in an imperfect world, there has never not been the shadow of evil cast over a people somewhere. I only hope that, in bringing to light the work today’s young people are doing to protect human rights, we can each of us feel a little braver to do some fighting in our own way.
Generational Values: Civic Rights and Identity
Jennifer Lu is the main coordinator of the Marriage Equality Coalition and Research Fellow of Taiwan Tongzhi Hotline Assocation.
After the Constitutional Court of Taiwan held on May 24 that the country’s current law stating that same sex couples cannot get married under the Civil Code is unconstitutional, Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage. As the main coordinator of the Marriage Equality Coalition and a long-term social activist, I believe the marriage equality movement reflects how, moving forward, the younger generation of Taiwanese people wants to participate more in public discussions to shape Taiwanese society according to their values.
While I was traveling in the United States, I was asked by many people what social and political conditions made it possible for Taiwan to become the first country in Asia to legalize same sex marriage. Along with the depth and stability of Taiwanese democracy, which empowers its citizens to make change, I argue that Taiwan’s maturing civil society is also an important factor. Taiwan’s support of gender equality movements in recent years, manifested in the Gender Equity Education Act（性別平等教育法), and the value placed on diversity in Taiwanese culture have raised Taiwan’s visibility on the global stage in terms of LGBTQ rights. In addition to the legal interpretation issued by the justices, all of the aforementioned factors are indispensable conditions that made May 24 possible.
Since the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014, the younger generation’s involvement in civil society has contributed to significant changes in political and civil fields in recent years. Discussions about public issues or participation in relevant movements have become a daily activity for young people. The idea that “we have to fight for our own rights” means that democracy does not only happen on election days but requires day-to-day effort. The issue of marriage equality has shown that the traditional political fault lines within Taiwanese society do not categorically prevent cooperation between the political parties on various social issues.
The KMT and the DPP have historically been diametrically opposed. Yet, for the Marriage Equality Bill—passed by committee in the Legislative Yuan (LY) last year—two KMT legislators worked in tandem with DPP legislators; all of them are also working with the NPP to send the Marriage Equality bill out of the Judiciary and Organic Laws and Statutes Committee（司法法制委員會). Unavoidably, there are still political struggles between the three parties, but they tried to cooperate on this point to convince senior legislators in their parties to support the bill. For the Marriage Equality Bill, the main dispute was not between different political parties, but generations. Cross-party collaboration was thus a critical factor for its success.
On the other hand, traditionally divisive issues such as “Taiwan independence” or the sovereignty issue have also been widely discussed in Taiwanese society in recent years. A growing consensus is emerging among the younger generation. The reasons why such opinions may be more commonly shared by young people include: long-term public discussions and education, the growing power of China, and the pace of change initiated by the PRC-friendly conciliatory policies of former president Ma Ying-Jeou. These have resulted in the awareness of resistance among members of the younger generation, and have further inspired the recognition of Taiwan’s independent sovereignty. The generation born after 1987—when martial law was lifted and the democratic movement grew quickly—have always lived in a society with freedom of speech. This generation has a strong passion to participate in civil society efforts to make Taiwan freer, more liberal, and more aware of the importance of diversity in a democracy. Those who show their support, passion, and desire to change by participating in numerous events and marches are the key to this campaign.
Taiwan’s efforts on behalf of marriage equality have proven to the world that Taiwan has a mature democracy, an independent judicial system, and a thriving civil society that is capable of including diverse cultures. Only when international awareness of Taiwan becomes more three-dimensional, and as we continue to emphasize democracy, human rights and shared values will our image in international society finally be differentiated from China’s, making us able to chart a new path.
The main point: The progressive milestone provided by the marriage equality movement’s victory in Taiwan has been propelled by the younger generation. They have a strong motivation to participate in civil society efforts to make Taiwan freer, more liberal, and more aware of the the importance of diversity in a democracy. Sharing the same values of freedom, liberal democracy, and human rights not only can demonstrate the sovereignty of Taiwan, but can also construct a clearer image for Taiwan internationally.
Democratic Youth Movements in South Korea: Past, Present, and Future
Dr. Yeo is an Associate Professor of Politics at The Catholic University of America.
The peaceful candlelight protests which led to the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye last winter were a historic moment for South Koreans. South Koreans are no strangers to protests. Since the 1960s until South Korea’s democratic transition in 1987, protesters have regularly taken to the streets to challenge authoritarian rule. During the democratic consolidation period, major protests erupted in response to US military issues, global trade, and economic injustice, with students and laborers often leading the way. What do the candlelight protests last winter tell us about South Korean civil society? In particular, what role, if any, did student movements play in the recent protests given the important role they once played in South Korea’s democracy movements?
In late October 2016, approximately 20,000 protesters gathered to demonstrate against the Park government amidst a bribery and corruption scandal. President Park breached the public’s trust by granting unprecedented access to classified documents and information to her personal confidant, Choi Soon-sil. She also revealed her ineptitude in leading her country. Meanwhile, Ms. Choi, taking advantage of her close ties to the president, managed to extort and bribe several South Korean corporations to fund her private foundations.
As details of the scandal unfolded, protest numbers continued to swell each weekend. By late November, an estimated one million South Koreans were gathering each weekend in Seoul to demand Park’s impeachment. The fallout from the scandal extended well beyond the Park government, leading to the investigation of a number of top South Korean companies and the arrest of Samsung’s chief executive Jay Y. Lee. The National Assembly ultimately voted to impeach President Park on December 9, 2016. In March of 2017, the Constitutional Court upheld the parliamentary vote, paving the way for a special election on May 9, which resulted in the victory of progressive party leader Moon Jae-in.
Although known to most South Koreans, many outside of South Korea remain unaware that the scandal had its roots in the summer of 2016, when students at the prestigious Ewha Womans University protested against the university administration over “unilateral and undemocratic” policies. Students had protested a continuing education degree program, known as LiFE (Light Up Your Future in Ewha) and staged a sit-in demanding a meeting with the university president. Although 1,600 riot police were dispatched to the campus, students ultimately rolled back the LiFE program. However, their attention turned to a new injustice: the illegitimate admittance and preferential treatment of a student based on her mother’s friendship with the South Korean president. The mother was none other than Choi Soon-sil. Student and faculty protests against preferential treatment for Choi’s daughter resulted in the resignation of the university president on October 19, 2016.
Although the connection should not be exaggerated, some commentators have argued that it was the student protests which prompted a broader investigation into Choi Soon-sil’s ties to the university, which in turn brought greater scrutiny unto Choi and the nature of her relationship to the President Park. The descent into this rabbit hole unveiled a world of bribery and corruption within the financial, political, and sports world, ultimately leading to the downfall of President Park. As Yonsei University professor John Delury argues, “In fact, the students had pulled loose a thread to unravel the web of corruption surrounding the highest echelons of political and economic power in the country.”
The connection between student protests and President Park’s impeachment gives pause for assessing youth democracy movements in South Korea’s past, present, and future. Undeniably, students have often taken up the mantle against authoritarian rule in South Korea. For instance, in 1960, university students, exposed to ideas of liberal democracy, criticized President Syngman Rhee’s frequent arbitrary revisions to the constitution and his abuse of the National Security Laws to suppress dissent. Students played a key role in ousting Syngman Rhee, allowing for a brief period of democracy until the 1961 military coup led by General Park Chung-hee (and the father of Park Geun-hye). Student activism remained vibrant in the 1970s, and especially during the 1980s in the wake of South Korea’s democratic transition in 1987. Students on the front lines in the fight for democracy often bore the brunt of police batons and tear gas during these demonstrations.
In the post-democratization era, student movements continued to organize around specific problems related to US military issues, inequality, free trade, and government corruption. However, in the past decade, South Korean social movements in general, and student movements in particular, have not retained their vibrancy or the robustness of the authoritarian era. South Korea has been a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) since 1996, and is currently the eleventh largest economy in the world. The social, political, and economic context for student protests today therefore differs from the authoritarian past. The typical South Korean student is more focused on completing their degree, studying abroad, or finding employment rather than taking up the call for social justice into the streets.
In fairness, the number of students participating in street protests is not necessarily an accurate gauge for measuring the vibrancy of youth movements. More important is the level of political participation and social engagement found among young South Koreans. The protests leading to the impeachment of President Park were a monumental event and will be remembered for years to come, particularly for younger South Koreans who were witnessing the power of civil society for the first time. The immediate impact of the anti-Park protests was the impeachment of the president and the return of progressive leadership under President Moon. The longer-term impact, however, may be a renewal of civil society and a new generation of young South Koreans motivated to stay politically engaged.
The main point: In sum, the movement to remove President Park Geun-hye from power represents a watershed moment in South Korean politics. Youth movements have been relatively dormant in recent years in comparison to the significant role students played in the struggle for South Korean democracy. However, with new momentum and a potential progressive ally in the Blue House, one can expect an upswing in political participation among the younger generation.
China’s Narrative for Social Control in Hong Kong
Johnson Yeung was an organizer of the 2014 Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. He was most recently the Hurford Youth Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
In September 2014, thousands of Hong Kong university students sat on The University Mall of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The Mall is a landmark boulevard with special meaning. At the end of the boulevard, a dark brown historical sculpture, The Gate, which signifies the wisdom and knowledge conferred by a university education, stands tall throughout the years. On the day when the students gathered on the Mall, a stage was set up next to the sculpture. The stage was specifically decorated with a green backdrop, on which the white and classy calligraphy, “To Determine Our Own Destiny”, was written. The eye-catching slogan ignited a loud outcry from student leaders and their friends gathered at the University. The slogan obviously represented what democracy meant to those students and the active participants of the Umbrella Movement (UM).
During the UM, an emergent narrative that described the desire of Hong Kong people to determine the city’s own destiny received increasing attention. It gradually evolved into a new political force: “the self-determination option.” It gained popularity among younger voters. Subsequently, in 2016’s Legislative Council Election, two candidates who were committed to the cause of self-determination were elected to the Council. One of them was Nathan Law– the youngest lawmaker in Hong Kong history and a student leader who formed the political party “Demosistō” with Joshua Wong (the name is a combination of “people” and “Stand” in Greek and Latin respectively, meaning the party will stand with the people to resist suppression). The other was Eddie Chu–an independent candidate and a newcomer to the election, who obtained the highest number of votes among all candidates. How are these people different from the traditional democrats in Hong Kong? Achieving electoral democracy is not their only aim. These lawmakers advocate returning the power from the Hong Kong government and elite to the people, in order to transform the contorted crony economic structure and governance.
Demosistō’s manifesto proclaims: “[a] democratic movement should not merely lead to a narrow sense of representative democracy, but social democracy and socio-economic autonomy in economic, land, cultural and community development of a city.” Ten months after their propitious success, Law was disqualified from the public office alongside five other lawmakers. Chu is safe from disqualification, for now.
The PRC government is waging a full assault on this rising political power because the tenuous legitimacy of Chinese sovereignty is facing challenges–the myth of economic progress and development are debunked by the new political force. For months, new lawmakers challenged the government’s white elephant projects through investigations. They exposed the collaboration between government and land developers. These lawmakers have also been active in building networks with international communities, strengthening an idea of “city autonomy” and creating a vision of alternative economic development.
Creation of an economic narrative for social control
The narrative of city autonomy and self-determinations among youth is challenging a narrative used to depoliticize social injustice and undemocratic institutions in Hong Kong. During the British colonial era, Hong Kong was described as a haven for people who had escaped from the political turmoil of mainland China in order to search for political stability and a better livelihood. This is evident from the renowned statement by Richard Hughes, “Hong Kong is a borrowed place living on borrowed time.” This colonial narrative portrayed Hong Kong people as mere economic animals who prioritized personal growth and wealth accumulation and were indifferent to public and political affairs. The narrative became a justification for delaying democratization, resulting in the restriction of the general public to participate merely in consultative politics instead of direct election. Despite the Chinese government’s emphasis on the restoration of Hong Kong people’s dignity after the end of the colonial era, the fundamental narratives of the colonial government remain in place. Economic development, economic efficiency and the role of Hong Kong in terms of contributing to China’s economy are therefore advocated and reinforced by the Chinese government to facilitate its control over Hong Kong. Political participation and dissent towards the government are portrayed as antagonism and thus discouraged. This narrative is nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing that helps an undemocratic government pacify public discontents and divert people’s attention to economic development in order to overlook its underlying political agendas.
No price is too high for economic development
There are several reasons for the collapse of the government’s narrative. Unlike their grandparents who were mostly refugees from China, Hong Kong youth have developed a sense of belonging and an attachment to the distinctive Hong Kong identity. To maintain the loyalty of its cronies and social stability by keeping promises of economic growth, the Chinese government must further integrate Hong Kong’s economy into China, which sacrifices fundamental values like the rule of law and the well-being of Hong Kong youth.
One notable example is the placement of a joint custom and immigration checkpoint at the cross-border high-speed rail link terminus located in the very heart of Hong Kong. This arrangement will lead to part of the terminus being leased to the mainland. The affected areas, rail tracks and train compartments on Hong Kong soil will then fall under the jurisdiction of mainland China. The government is desperate to get this rail link running because a huge portion of public money (HK $10.7 billion) will benefit Chinese enterprises and their cronies in Hong Kong. Once the plan is implemented, hundreds of armed mainland law enforcement officers will be stationed at the terminus, platform and train compartments to enforce Chinese law in areas that “belong” to the Chinese government. Hong Kong has always been governed by its de facto constitution–the Basic Law, which ensures Hong Kong has a separate border and jurisdiction from mainland China. With a majority of pro-establishment lawmakers sitting on the Legislative Council, it is very likely the government can obtain sufficient endorsements for such an arrangement without significant backlash.
The most agitating part of the controversy is how the government has obscured its true agenda of jettisoning “one country, two systems” by using the rhetoric of property, economy and economic efficiency. As a result, the local business elites usually criticize opposition lawmakers as people concerned only about politics and wanting to make a scene. This narrative is a threat to Hong Kong’s democratic discourse and autonomy, and it has proven very effective: according to this narrative, no price is too high when economic progress is at stake, even if the price is the internationally recognized and legally enshrined “One Country, two systems” framework.
The truth is, most one-Party, authoritarian governments, semi-authoritarian governments, and dictators elected through democratic elections camouflage their attacks on people’s rights and dignity by celebrating economic progress. Political scientists have shown that there is no direct link between authoritarianism and economic prosperity. In fact, it only yields a more rigged, crony market that favours corruption. Hong Kong youth are not fooled, in part because they have experienced insurmountable housing costs and are facing downward social mobility. It is obvious that the new opposition lawmakers have only one job: to strive for true democracy and self-determination.
That said, exposing the deception inherent in the Chinese government’s narrative leaves the job only half done. The narrative is appealing to people because the majority are living in deprivation and poverty. This is certainly true in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. People want to believe that “pseudo-stability” and social order are able to bring economic prosperity even though it is merely an illusion fabricated by authoritarian governments.
Eddie Chu’s election manifesto proclaimed, “‘[w]hen government officials, corporations, landowners and the Chinese Communist Party force us to accept our fate, we should pluck up our courage to say, ‘Whether we are talking about the contexts of the city, the countryside, the community or the public estates, the master should be the People.’” Since the emergence of a self-determination political force, there have been attempts to create an alternative economy and establish webs of international networks, and continuous investigations made into government cronies’ collaboration. When an authoritarian government cannot justify its rule except through economic progress, a break between the competing values of economic progress and democracy must be articulated, in order to draw people’s support away from undemocratic governments.
The main point: After the Umbrella Movement, young people created a new political party called Demosistō, to combat the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong. However, the PRC is using a powerful false narrative that economic progress comes before people’s rights in Hong Kong.