Taiwan’s young rise up

Author: Jennifer Chen, Harvard Graduate School of Education

It has been widely argued that the defeat of Taiwan’s ruling Nationalist Party’s (KMT) in the ‘nine-in-one’ local elections revealed nationwide disillusionment with the government. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won 13 of the 22 cities and counties, and the KMT only managed to retain 6 of the 15 localities that they had previously held. Though overall voter turnout was approximately 68 per cent, 70 per cent of 20–29 year olds went to the ballot box — one of the highest youth turnout rates in Taiwanese history. Young people, inspired by the Sunflower Movement to become more politically active and serve as government watchdogs, played a crucial role in determining the outcome of the elections. In fact, some even go as far as arguing that the election results were youth-driven.

What was the impact of young people on the election outcome? To many young voters, the KMT does not represent a ruling party that prioritises their future prospects; nor does it offer them adequate options in the job market. While many attribute the KMT’s defeat to the people’s uneasiness with its increasingly close ties with China and Beijing’s suppression of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central protest, it is important to remember that for the Taiwanese people, and especially young people, these races primarily emphasised economic and domestic issues.

Today, young Taiwanese who are looking to move out of their parents’ homes find it extremely difficult to buy a house of their own. According to the Global Property Guide, between 2008, when President Ma came to power, and the first quarter of 2014, housing prices in Taipei have risen by 91.6 per cent. Earlier this year, the overall ratio of housing prices to income for Taipei was about 15, which means that an average homebuyer would need to save 15 years worth of income to buy a home.

Compare this to other advanced economies in the region. Japan has a price to income ratio of 4 and Singapore a ratio of 5.1. Taiwan’s soaring housing prices are mainly linked to the surge of taishangs, or Taiwanese businessmen with operations on the mainland, who see real estate in Taiwan as their only viable investment option following the 2008 global financial crisis. The KMT’s efforts to prevent the taishangs from driving up the housing prices have been futile, and young people are becoming increasingly resentful of and disgusted by the KMT’s inability to bridge this widening wealth gap.

Unfortunately, skyrocketing property prices in Taiwan come at the same time as incomes fall, further reducing the purchasing power of the young and dampening their prospects for the future. According to the Wall Street Journal, as more Taiwanese businesses and workers move to the mainland, Taiwan’s industrial base will eventually be hollowed out by the attractiveness of the Chinese market. Gordon Sun, an economist at the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research, argues that ‘the real wage in Taiwan now is the same as it was 16 years ago’.

China currently soaks up two-thirds of Taiwan’s overseas investment and 40 per cent of its exports, taking away business opportunities that could have been offered to young graduates. As of December 2014, 14 per cent of Taiwanese aged 20–24 are unemployed, and are most likely the same people who questioned the KMT’s decision to deepen trade ties with China. Not only do they demand that more must be done for those residing in Taiwan, but that this mandate be taken up by a new ruling party.

What the newly elected mayor of Taipei Ko Wen-je offered young people during his campaign — and what the KMT could not offer over the past few years — is the idea of a fresh start. He ran as an independent and insisted that he would not join the DPP even after elected. To young voters, he embodies honesty, transparency, and a willingness to move beyond partisanship — characteristics which the KMT has failed to emulate.

Recognising the increasingly influential role played by youth in civic affairs, President Ma Ying-jeou stated during his 2015 New Year’s Day address that when young people are concerned about society, ‘Taiwan will be filled with vigour and continue to grow stronger.’ For the KMT and other political parties to preserve power in Taiwanese politics, then, they must respond to the needs of the young population rather than embracing a stagnating status quo. In Taiwan, especially given low birth rates, young people are the future, and it would behoove Taiwan’s parties to consider them more when making policy.

Jennifer Chen is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.