Taiwan’s Student Protests: Generational Or Partisan?

I’ve been a little slow to notice the large student protests in Taipei that have led to a four-day occupation of the legislative chamber and all sorts of tensions within and beyond Taiwan.

The protests are against a trade pact signed by the Kuomintang Party (KMT)-controlled Taiwanese government with the People’s Republic of China. To those unfamiliar with Taiwanese politics (I’m certainly not an expert, but I have been there twice in the last decade or so), this might seem like some sort of generic youth protest against free trade or globalization; those are most definitely the trappings of the protests. But then again, Taiwanese politics have been polarized for decades over what are delicately called “cross-straits relations,” and the KMT’s complaints that the student protests are just a front for the usual anti-mainland policies of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) strike me as credible if not dispositive.

While there has been some blurring of lines over the years, and even an occasional third-party movement, the Taiwanese two-party system has long been based on what happened back during the period between 1945 and 1949 after liberation of the island from Japan. The electoral base of the KMT (the Chinese republican nationalist party whose main founder was Sun Yat-Sen) has always been “mainlanders” (and their descendents) who came over after the Communist victory over Chiang Kai-Shek in 1949, while the DPP’s primary base has been among the pre-1945 Taiwanese population on whom Chiang’s military imposed a dictatorship after bloodily crushing a revolt.

All I will say for sure is this: if the “Jasmine Revolution” (as the protests are becoming known) is indeed an authentic youth movement that transcends the old lines of conflict in Taiwan, that would be a development of revolutionary impact beyond its implications for “cross-strait relations.” But in either event, I’m sure Beijing is watching the whole show with a dangerous level of anger and impatience.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.