The response was as rapid as it was disarming. “Are you happy with the education system in Taiwan?” I asked a group of students from high school at a conference arranged by one of the island’s top universities, National Taiwan University, in mid-July. “Not at all,” said one girl, who went on to give a long list of grievances: being treated as learning machines, having to endure propaganda in place of history in textbooks, not feeling the teachers had the time or capacity to care much for students as individuals.
She was not alone. Most of her peers agreed. Ironically, these students are living proof that, if Taiwan’s educational system has tried to “brainwash” students (and there is no evidence that it has), it has failed miserably. Instead, Taiwan has ended up making a generation of fiercely independent minded and articulate teenagers.
In January, Taiwan’s politicians will have to face an electorate that, at the moment, doesn’t enfranchise those under 21. Even so, it is clear that young people like the ones I met are going to be a noisy and influential group, and will be watching the outcome of the January 16 presidential elections more keenly than almost anyone else.
Tsai Ing-wen, the Democratic Progressive Party candidate (DPP), presented at the end of the conference in July. Most regard the election as hers to lose. British-educated, and someone who, going from the remarks she made that day, almost wandered into politics by accident, Tsai will make history in more ways than one if successful. She will be the first woman ever to have achieved the top leadership position not only in Taiwan, but across Greater China.
The symbolism of this has been widely commented on. But it remains a very stark and tangible reminder of why Taiwan matters. Taiwan, Tsai said in her speech, is a global island. Its trade, education, and people-to-people links are spread throughout the world. Of the major Chinese communities on the planet, Taiwan has engaged with modernity in a unique way, and its success has probably been less recognized and appreciated than it should be. While economic and, to some extent, social modernity are ablaze across the People’s Republic, no one would claim that its politics is remotely near modernization at the moment. Even a charitable description of Beijing’s ruling philosophy would have to factor in its highly tribal, opaque habits, which come from another, former age.
Taiwan, by contrast, has embraced modernity within the political realm. That means the sixth presidential election held since 1996 with universal franchise for those over 21 will be passionate and dynamic but peaceful. The outcome, whichever party wins, will not cause uncertainty or unrest. Tsai and her main opponent, Hung Hsiu-chu from the KMT, will mainly have to deal with an electorate that wants to hear their ideas not so much on grand geopolitical issues like cross-strait relations, but on how they propose to energize the island’s economy, whose performance has been sub-optimal for the last decade. Taiwan politics exemplifies modernity in the ways in which elections are less and less about ideology and more about how politicians can sell practical ideas to a wide, easily impatient, increasingly well-informed, and expectant electorate, one quick to express dissatisfaction.
The People’s Republic remains ruled by a Standing Committee of seven men (a group which, since 1949, has not once had a female representative), and where only 20 percent of the membership of the ruling Communist Party are women. The fact that the two major parties for Taiwan’s 2016 elections have produced female candidates speaks volumes about how open and pluralistic Taiwan’s politics have become.
While we should celebrate this, however, we have to remember that whoever wins – Tsai or Hung – they will face a group far more potentially formidable than the leadership in Beijing: the vociferous, highly engaged, and expectant population exemplified by the young people I talked to in mid-July. Fobbing them off with easy answers and trying to appease them with solutions pitched long into the future doesn’t wash much with this group. And their highly networked lives mean that dissatisfaction can spread like wildfire and lead to street protests and action like the recent spates of protests at schools, and the large scale ones in March and April last year which saw the Legislative Yuan stormed. Nor does this group sit easily within party politics. They cannot be spoken to as a neat, cohesive group. The roots of their dissatisfaction are diverse and complex.
There was one final thought that I had before leaving Taipei. If Xi Jingping were to magically drop in to sit amongst a group of school children as I had done in Taiwan, and hear their unvarnished opinions on life and politics, I wonder what he might think about the feasibility of attempts to unify with a place now so politically diverse. Would he, or any Beijing leader for that matter, really want to put themselves in the line of the fiercely forensic, independent thinking of young Taiwanese? They might even start to feel that having 100 kilometers of clear water between them and this vibrant, argumentative community would a blessing, rather than a curse.