TAIPEI (Reuters) - Young Taiwan activists have tied themselves up in chains, blocked mountain roads, scaled fences and thrown red paint balloons in a wave of anti-China sentiment likely to turn the island’s politics on its head in January’s presidential election.
An energetic and fast-growing youth movement, united in suspicion of economic and cultural dependence on China, is expected to sweep in a president from a party which favors independence from China, something Communist Party rulers across the narrow Taiwan Strait will never allow.
“When my generation comes of age, Taiwan’s cross-strait attitude is going to be very different,” said student movement leader Huang Yen-ju. “We want China to treat us like a country.”
China views self-ruled Taiwan as a renegade province and has not ruled out the use of force to bring it under its control. But relations have improved in recent years.
President Ma Ying-jeou, of the pro-China Nationalist Party, has signed a series of trade and economic pacts with China, though there have been no political talks and suspicions persist on both sides, especially in proudly democratic Taiwan.
Ma leaves office in January under term-limit regulations and many youngsters are backing the candidate from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Tsai Ing-wen.
If Tsai wins, and more independence-minded parties gain control of parliament, as expected, tensions between China and Taiwan are bound to rise. Tsai is running about 10 percentage points ahead in opinion polls, but they can be inaccurate, particularly as her Nationalist Party rival has not been officially nominated and the elections are still months away.
Asked about the January election, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said recently: “We welcome any Taiwan party or person, as long as they oppose Taiwan independence.”
The trouble for China is that independence is exactly what Taiwan’s youth movement wants.
Activists in their teens and twenties have taken to the streets en masse in recent months, brandishing banners, shouting slogans, scuffling with police and attempting to force their way into government offices.
The scale and duration, while small compared to recent pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, reflect the same fears about Beijing’s “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese rule exactly 18 years ago and which Beijing has suggested as a model for Taiwan.
“Throwing paint is a favorite tactic - it sends a vivid message but isn’t hurting anyone,” said Chang Chao-lin, head of the youth delegation of the Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU), the most staunchly pro-independence political party on the island.
Grievances range from the opening of Chinese flight paths over Taiwan airspace, to Taiwan’s attempted entrance into the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and to planned changes to the national curriculum. These include labeling China “the mainland” and relegating significant events in recent Taiwan history to sideshows, some students say.
In the latest outburst, Yu Teng-jay threw balloons of red paint against the wall of Taiwan’s Ministry of Education last week.
“These curriculum changes are slanted toward a Chinese view of the world,” said Yu, 18.
Beijing has proclaimed youth outreach a critical plank of reconciliation, but China’s reputation among young Taiwanese appears to be in inexorable decline.
A main plank of Ma’s administration, a pact which would have opened much of Taiwan’s service sector to mainland investment, sparked a three-week occupation of parliament by young people last year.
The protest, dubbed the Sunflower Movement, ignited a wave of demonstrations against the Nationalists and their amity towards China.
Chang of the TSU said youth was a new focus for the party, which uses social media to organize rallies, including one against a visiting Chinese official which led to scuffles and left one man with a dislocated arm.
This upheaval is spilling over to voting behavior, pollsters say.
In local elections last year, support for pro-independence parties among 20- to 29-year-olds saw a 10 percent rise over the previous election cycle, far outstripping a comparable boost among their elders, according to Academia Sinica, a government-sponsored think tank.
The data also showed the proportion of young people calling themselves “Taiwanese” versus “Chinese” was the highest among all age brackets.
Similarly, in a hypothetical face-off between Tsai and her presumptive opponent, Nationalist and unification advocate Hung Hsiu-chu, in next year’s elections, 20- and 30-somethings support Tsai by a greater than 20 percent margin, a poll by local broadcaster TVBS showed.
Nationalist forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of the Chinese civil war with the Communists that has never formally ended, and the status of Taiwan has hung over several generations of Communist leaders without a lasting resolution.
“China clearly wants to take Taiwan, so why should we be more open toward them?” high school student Fang Xin-jie, 17, told Reuters. “It will only make us more dependent.”
Editing by Nick Macfie