Politics & Law

Courting the youth vote after the Sunflower Movement

31 August, 2023

Pan-Green parties have had more success in appealing to the youth in the past two elections but things are not as clear cut this time around


By Brian Hioe


Taiwanese politicians have made significant efforts to court the youth vote in the past decade. This was very much the case after the 2014 Sunflower Movement, which catapulted a generation of young activists into the forefront of the public consciousness. Many of those activists who became known in public life through the movement later ran for office in 2016, as candidates of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) or pan-Green third parties such as the New Power Party (NPP), while still others entered politics as grassroots political workers.


In particular, the Sunflower Movement had the broader effect of shifting social views of young people. Before the movement, young people were previously derided as an apathetic and indifferent “Strawberry Generation” that was soft and weak, easily bruised like strawberries, unlike their boomer parents. But after the movement, young people were seen as socially conscious, politically engaged, and willing to take risks for the sake of what they believed in.


This proves, in some ways, paradoxical. Namely, despite the Sunflower Movement causing this shift in views of young people and spotlighting many young activists who later became well-known politicians, voting rates among young people in Taiwan continue to be low. To this extent, in a time of declining birthrates and an ageing population, young people can be outvoted by the elderly–and this phenomenon will only increase in the future. And though the Sunflower Movement may have put the focus on the young people who were politically engaged, certainly not everyone who participated in the movement has remained politically active in the years since.


The KMT’s loss of support from the youth

The Kuomintang (KMT) party was widely seen as having lost the support of young people after the Sunflower Movement, with Tsai Ing-wen seen as having rode into power on the basis of a wave of support from young Taiwanese people in 2016. In November 2020, the KMT had less than 9,000 members under 40, though the party claimed in January 2021 that recruitment among under-40s had increased by 40% the year prior.


As a result, the KMT has been derided in past years with the view that it has few young supporters and even fewer young politicians. One infamous Internet meme, for example, from 2018 poked fun at KMT legislator Apollo Chen and then-chair Wu Den-yih for wearing pants far above their waists – “grandfather pants”, in other words. Other misguided attempts by the party to appeal to young people, such as a hip hop-themed video or campaign merch themed after college sports jackets, have also been derided. 


Though current Taipei mayor Chiang Wan-an is one of the party’s younger rising stars, the party has also acquired a reputation for purging young party members, who face accusations that they are insufficiently loyal to the party or could potentially be pan-Green turncoats. Indeed, KMT Taipei city councillor Hsu Chiao-hsin is one KMT politician that has often faced such accusations. In terms of attracting media attention, Hsu punches above her weight as a mere city councillor, due to frequently baiting controversy online.


But Hsu was originally passed over as the KMT leadership’s choice for legislative candidate in the 2024 elections, with Hsu accusing the party leadership of favouring only young candidates from powerful and influential families–naming Chiang Wan-an, whose family alleges to be descendants of Chiang Kai-shek and is the son of legislator John Chiang, as an example of such an individual. Despite the fact that Hsu faced pushback from the KMT establishment over such criticisms, Hsu managed to out-primary her opponents to become a legislative candidate in the Xinyi-Songshan area of Taipei.


That being said, in light of the fact that the elderly can and will outnumber the young in Taiwan, leaning into appeals to older voters can also be viewed as a deliberate strategy by the KMT because of this fact. Yet this approach may not have been very successful to date.


DPP successes in appealing to the youth

In general, it is often thought that young people are more pan-Green. Survey polling consistently shows rising Taiwanese identity among young people and a declining sense of Chinese identity–or even dual Chinese and Taiwanese identity. This has led post-Sunflower Movement Millenials to be termed the “natural independence” (天然獨) generation, even as questions have been raised about whether Gen Z is as politically engaged, pro-independence, or pro-Taiwanese identity.


Either way, as there are such questions about the composition of their base, the DPP has sometimes been accused of running a number of younger candidates in order to rebrand a slate of mostly older candidates as more youthful than they actually are. Certainly, it is the DPP’s older leadership that calls the shots for the party at present.


Creating a youthful image seems to be the strategy that the DPP is again taking in this current set of elections, in endorsing or running a number of candidates in greater Taipei with backgrounds in the Sunflower Movement, such as former Sunflower Movement spokesperson Wu Cheng, legal expert Miao Poya, and originally fielding Sunflower Movement student leader Lin Fei-fan before he resigned to take responsibility for the wave of #MeToo cases that faced the DPP after the hit TV show Wave Makers spotlighted such issues. Compared to the KMT, the DPP’s approach has been more successful to date.

Has the DPP lost support among young people? The appeal of pan-Blue populism

Still, recent events have raised questions as to whether the pan-Green camp continues to hold a monopoly on youth support, with Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) presidential candidate and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je known to enjoy a significant degree of support from young people despite being a pan-Blue candidate. Though the pan-Blue camp has struggled to appeal to young people in past years, similar to Hsu or pan-Green politicians of the same cohort, part of Ko’s appeal seems to be his virality in that he is frequently seen as funny, even if often controversial. Ko’s frequent gaffes or politically incorrect statements may add to his appeal, with some terming Ko to be a semi-populist politician not unlike Donald Trump in the US.


Certainly, Ko is not alone in this, with 2020 KMT presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu and independent pan-Blue candidate Terry Gou also sometimes interpreted as semi-populist candidates. But Han and Gou often draw virality–and headlines–through outlandish political ideas, while Ko is seen as having a humorous personality, not unlike many Internet influencers. What all three share, though, may be that they are seen as different from establishment politicians because of their willingness to speak frankly even when this deviates from political correctness or ventures off-script. Gou has especially leaned into the populist frame during this election cycle, compared to his 2020 run, with outlandish proposals such as suggesting that he would build an army of 80,000 robots to defend Taiwan from China or declaring his undying love to Ko Wen-je during a meeting. 


Backlash against pan-Green political correctness?

A rally on housing justice organised by former NPP chair Huang Kuo-chang and political streamer Holger Chen which drew 30,000 people in July complicates the framing of young people as pan-Green, in that all pan-Blue presidential candidates appeared at the rally and were mostly cheered by a crowd of young people. Yet the rally became a de facto rally for Ko, with Ko cheered and Hou booed during their respective speeches. Though Gou had not yet announced a run then, Gou was also cheered by the crowd.


Much social commentary afterward focused on the fact that attendance at the rally was predominantly young men. A contributing factor may have been Chen’s macho personality as a bodybuilder and Huang’s similarly macho persona, given that during his stint as legislator, Huang was known for his aggressive debating skills. Even if the #MeToo cases that rocked Taiwan starting in May had not taken place too much earlier, some of the participants at the rally sought to defend themselves in online forums such as PTT with the claim that women were too busy shopping or did not care enough about serious political issues to participate. Former labour and feminist activist, Lai Hsiang-lin of the TPP, was criticized for claiming that the low female attendance was because women were likely too busy taking care of children to participate. 


What one notes, however, is that even if socially conscious post-Sunflower Movement activists sometimes referred to as being members of the “Awakened Youth” or “Woke Youth” (覺青) may have entered the DPP, another undercurrent of views among young people was a backlash against what they view as restrictive political correctness. This could perhaps be seen in some of the attempts to defend the July rally–or even the recent popularity of the Internet animation “Life of a Mountain Road Monkey,” which deals with male anger against emasculation and economic inequality. With close to four million views in a matter of days, this would suggest that one in six people in Taiwan have seen “Life of a Mountain Road Monkey.”


The recent wave of #MeToo cases and calls for discussion of such issues from young progressive politicians may, in fact, contribute to a growing split among young people over political correctness, then. In previous years, there was already some backlash against feminism, with some discourse framing feminism as a “buffet” (女權自助餐)--a selectively applied, self-righteous logic.


Yet it is less clear whether there will be backlash against other progressive stances of the Tsai administration, such as its legalisation of gay marriage, or this would dovetail with other controversial stances of the Tsai administration such as its pension reform measures. Though there was an organised pushback against efforts to realize gay marriage from Christian conservative groups such as the “Protect the Family Alliance” starting in 2016 onward, this did not translate into a backlash against gay marriage from young people. And while a substrate of backlash against the pan-Green camp is not only pushback against political correctness but a sense of economic disenfranchisement, this has not yet intersected with the issue of pension reform–by contrast, activists involved in protests against the Tsai administration’s changes to the Labor Standards Act during her first term were largely pan-Green activists, some of which later entered the DPP.


It remains to be seen how this affects campaigning efforts for Lai Ching-te, the DPP’s presidential candidate. Lai is the current frontrunner in the election, with the pan-Blue vote likely to be split between Gou, Ko, and Hou. But ironically, Lai is often seen as not as politically progressive as Tsai, given his challenging Tsai for the DPP’s presidential nomination in 2020 and alignment with socially conservative, strongly pro-Taiwanese independence elders within the pan-Green camp. If there is, in fact, a backlash against political correctness as associated with the young activists that affiliated themselves with the Tsai administration, Lai could actually benefit from being seen as less progressive than Tsai in attracting some youth demographics.


Brian Hioe is a Taiwanese American writer, translator, and the founding editor of New Bloom

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