TAIPEI – Young activists frustrated by Chinese interference and pessimistic about the future are standing for election in Taiwan this month, determined to shake up politics in a move set to alarm Beijing.
The vote comes after Beijing-wary campaigners in Hong Kong won seats in recent elections, a further challenge to Chinese influence as anger swells among a generation of disaffected youth.
In Taiwan, the dramatic occupation of parliament in 2014 by student-led protesters over a China trade pact reflected increasing resistance to Beijing as young Taiwanese seek to forge and protect their identity.
It was also borne out of more everyday frustrations — low salaries, fewer job opportunities and unaffordable housing as the economy stagnates.
Although young Taiwanese had staged protests in the past, none had been on the scale of the Sunflower Movement’s occupation of parliament.
Now, in the first island-wide election since the protests, activists are determined to push for political power, saying standing for office is the best way to bring change.
“Social movements can’t obtain real political influence because Taiwan’s system is too closed and too conservative,” said Tseng Po-yu, 24, a spokeswoman for the Sunflower Movement who is standing for the newly-formed Green Party-Social Democratic Party Alliance.
Tseng would become the youngest ever member of parliament and said many of her policies revolve around improving life for young people.
“It’s impossible for young people to save money with low salaries and rising consumer prices, let alone to afford the skyrocketing housing prices,” said Tseng.
“I want to speak up for young people who are concerned about their future . . . we deserve better lives.”
Similar frustrations in semi-autonomous Hong Kong led to the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, which brought parts of the city to a standstill in late 2014.
The student-led rallies were sparked by Beijing imposing restrictions on leadership elections, but were also an expression of frustration in a city where salaries cannot keep up with soaring house prices.
Former Hong Kong protesters recently took seats in district elections, although pro-Beijing forces dominated the polls in a key test of public sentiment.
“Young people are an economic minority as both (Hong Kong and Taiwan) government policy focus is not on them — their dissatisfaction exploded in the movements,” said William Niu, a political analyst at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei.
“It is the awakening of many young people in Taiwan and Hong Kong who are fearful of being marginalized in society,” he added.
Taiwan is self-ruling after splitting with China in 1949 following a civil war but has never formally declared independence from Beijing, which regards it as a breakaway territory to be reunited by force if necessary.
The vote on January 16 is likely to see the ruling Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT) lose the presidency and possibly their majority in parliament.
The main opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is expected to win the leadership, sweeping away eight years of KMT rule that saw a rapprochement with China.
Traditionally Beijing-skeptic, the DPP is treading a careful line over its China strategy, saying that it wants to “maintain the status quo.”
Young activists are far more vocal about their antipathy towards Beijing.
Terrence Lin, 34, a former flight attendant who participated in both the Sunflower and Umbrella movements, will stand for lawmaker in the Taiwan elections.
“I joined the rallies because I dislike Chinese propaganda in Hong Kong. I think Chinese propaganda in Taiwan is more subtle but more dangerous,” he said.
“If you really want to change things . . . run for office.”
The younger generation’s newfound political ambitions will bother Beijing, according to analysts.
“I think Beijing is keeping a close eye and is concerned about the changes in politics,” said Chang Wu-yuch, a China expert at Tamkang University in Taipei.
Beijing “is enhancing its youth policy,” focusing on the job and business opportunities China can offer, says Chang.
But with young people growing more wary of Beijing’s influence, China’s overtures may fall on deaf ears.
“I want a diverse parliament so different voices can be heard,” said Wang Po-chieh, a 21-year-old college student and first-time voter in Taipei.
Office assistant Cheng Li-Chun, 25, said it was time for a new direction.
“If we don’t support small parties this time, things will never change,” she said.