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.