Youth & politics in East Asia

Young people in Northeast Asia have become famous around the world for their creativity and consumer flair: K-pop and the Korean Wave, fancy smart phones and IT entrepreneurism, high-end fashion, obsession with plastic surgery, and web-based social networks. Political activism and participation are not the first two words that pop into one’s head when we think of young East Asians. 

But in recent years, youth in Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are leading political movements and asserting their interests onto the national political agenda. Although the specific issues of political concern differ, they are motivated by a common fear of economic decline for their generation, a rejection of political marginalization, and a moral awakening that their governments and the older generations are endangering their future, including democracy. 

Since 2014, young Japanese took up the issue of national security policy and the democratic process and became new defenders of the peace Constitution. They passionately opposed the Legislation for Peace and Security (aka Collective Self-Defense law), which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government put before the Diet to permit Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to engage in military action outside Japan and in the aid of allies. The leading organization, Students Emergency Action for Liberal Democracy (SEALDs), used peaceful means to stage multi-faceted challenges—via street protests, songs, livestream broadcasts, humor, as well as slogans deliberately marked in the English language—to what they viewed as fundamentally unconstitutional and a violation of the democratic process. Most of Japan’s constitutional scholars agreed with them.

All protesters, young and old, condemned the CSD measures as a way for Japan to do what Article 9 of the Constitution forbids: engage in offensive military action without amending the Constitution. Many called it the “war law.” Not only college students but those in middle school and high school participated in protests and meetings while still in their school uniforms. Teens Stand Up To Oppose War Law (T-ns SOWL) is their main organization. In late August 2015, at the height of the protests across Japan, over 120,000 people held their rally in front of the Diet building while tens of thousands more gathered in other cities. In the mass gatherings, the SEALDs slogan, “What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like,” reverberated. Young people were drawing attention to themselves as practitioners and protectors of Japanese democracy, as opposed to the older Abe establishment in the government and the Diet. Although their protests did not stop the passing and enactment of the bill (March 2016), Japanese youth continue to oppose the government’s penchant to increase Japan’s military capabilities and posture. Their weakness, however, lies in having no institutional structure of leadership and influence. This reflects SEALDs’ belief in horizontal political participation and organizing, in itself a political stance in a society that is hierarchical and hyper-organized.

In Korea, President Park Geun-hye’s conservative Saenuri Party was projected to be the overwhelming winner of South Korea’s legislative election on April 13, 2016 as no pundits or surveys predicted the opposition Minjoo Party to emerge as the victor. But in a stunning twist, the Minjoo Party gained a single seat advantage over the ruling Saenuri Party and secured a liberal majority with an additional 44 seats from two minor opposition parties. This surprise outcome was not credited to the success of the opposition, but instead largely attributed to the increased turnout of voters in their twenties and thirties who are frustrated by socioeconomic conditions and the political status quo. Leading up to the election, university student bodies and various youth groups mobilized young voters to go the polls, which resulted in a 13 percent increase among 20-year-olds since the last election. Once labeled as a politically detached generation, South Korea’s youth sent a loud and powerful message that they have had enough.

On May 20, 2016, Taiwan inaugurated Tsai Ing-wen, its first woman president, and completed its third democratic transfer of power. In February, following the January 2016 elections, Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) became the majority party in the Legislative Yuan for the first time. While the Kuomintang, the conservative ruling party, was predicted to lose the executive, the losses in the Legislative Yuan validated the growing progressive movement that had been initiated by students in March 2014.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, student activist groups have mobilized beyond mass demonstrations, such as the Umbrella Movement of fall 2014. Angered by the setback to political reform and expanded citizen participation in choosing their leaders, the young students have organized into formal political parties, looking ahead to the September 2016 Legislative Council (LegCo) elections. Similar to the student groups in South Korea, the younger generation in Taiwan and Hong Kong has concluded that their voices are not only important, but necessary in determining their political and economic futures.

Why now? Why have younger activist movements emerged or gained ground recently?

Like their counterparts in South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, Japanese youth were affected by a series of political, legal, and economic events that decreased their trust in their respective governments and increased their sense of vulnerability and insecurity. The most prominent catalyst was the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster of March 2011. It generated a rash of citizen activism, including investigation and documentation teams, increased opposition to nuclear power plants, and lawsuits against the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company. Because so many of the victims were children and youth, the political action was particularly poignant. Parents of the nearly 400,000 children residing in the Fukushima area at the time of the power plant melt-downs began organizing in April 2011.

One group sued the Koriyama City government, demanding that it provide financially and logistically for the affected children to reside and attend school in safe areas. Two years later, their lawsuit failed as the Sendai High Court ruled against the plaintiffs, stating that radiation levels are safe enough, even for children, and that families should pursue evacuation if they wish, at their own cost. The 400,000 or so children (up to 18 years of age at the time of the accident) will be required to get tested for radiation-related health effects for the rest of their lives because children are known to be more vulnerable to radiation than adults. As of April 2016, citizens were disappointed again as their injunction against the reopening of two reactors at a nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture was overturned by the Fukuoka High Court. Young and old alike have joined together to oppose nuclear energy in Japan.

Young people also resent the expansion of non-regular employment and the Worker Dispatch Law, which decreased the labor rights and protections of dispatched or temporary workers since its inception in 1985. The global economic crisis of 2007-09 highlighted young people’s economic vulnerability as jobs became harder to obtain and those in temporary arrangements, with no seniority in age and experience, were easily laid off. The 2012 revision of the Dispatch Law prohibited the employment of a temp for more than three years in certain job categories was another blow to young people, who worry that they will face “lifelong dispatch.” SEALDs also warns against the economic hardship on many Japanese, including young adults, when the proposed consumption tax of 10 percent kicks in come April 2017: “If the consumption tax is increased without rebuilding the system of redistribution centered on social security, the wealth gap will continue to widen.”

For South Korea, signs of frustration began to brew in 2013 when a hand-written poster at the elite Korea University circulated around the internet. Written in the form of a letter, the poster conveyed frustration against perceived social injustices (e.g. 4,213 workers were dismissed for protesting the privatization of the state-owned Korea Railroad Co.), which reverberated beyond the student population. Most striking was the poignant criticism of the lack of youth representation in government and young people’s sense of repeated neglect by the older political establishment. The letter was a sobering reminder that today’s youth feel they have little say in shaping their own futures.

This political wake-up call was amplified following the government’s inadequate handling of the Sewol ferry tragedy in spring 2014 and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome outbreak (MERS) in spring 2015. When reports revealed that state collusion with the shipping industry led to lax maritime regulations and that the government had failed to distribute time-sensitive information about MERS, an enraged public demanded accountability for the tragic loss of innocent lives. The sinking of Sewol killed 304 passengers out of 476 on board, most of whom were high school students. This wave of public distrust and resentment triggered a larger outcry against the lack of transparency and corruption in both government and businesses.

Mounting frustrations from the younger generation culminated in the creation of “Hell Joseon,” a satirical phrase and an online community named after the country’s “hellish” economic conditions and the class-based society of Joseon, Korea’s former kingdom before Japanese colonization. The phrase is used to describe a grim society where social mobility is impossible, only the privileged are immune from the plight of unemployment, and immigration is the only way out. The popularity and wide circulation of this term led to a public debate about the hardships of Korean society, prompting even politicians to use the term during the 2015 National Assembly inspection of government offices. Naturally, both the term and its implications made its way into the campaign trails, as evidenced in the prioritization of domestic issues in candidates’ platforms for the 2016 general election.

In Taiwan, the younger generation burst onto the political scene in March 2014, when a group of activists stormed and occupied the Legislative Yuan for twenty-three days. The occupation, known as the “Sunflower Movement,” was the culmination of the growing frustration with Taiwan’s economic climate coupled with the younger generation’s political upbringing in a democracy. The student occupiers focused on the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which, to them, embodied both economic and security perils created by the then-president Ma Ying-jeou’s practice of political thaw and tighter economic ties with mainland China. The protesters viewed the benefits of the CSSTA as biased favoring big corporations but hurting small-to-medium enterprises. Additionally, these young occupiers felt that under the KMT, Taiwan’s worsening economy was becoming more dependent on the Mainland. They feared that Beijing was taking advantage of these agreements as a means to leverage its power over the island, which would make China’s ultimate goal of reunification all the easier.

Hong Kong’s political reform process, which was initiated prior to Britain’s handover of the territory back to China in 1997, has garnered more attention in recent years due to upcoming milestones. Since the reversion, China has taken gradual steps to ensure Hong Kong’s political system adheres to the Basic Law, which is the mini-constitution that protects “one country, two systems”, the guiding principle for China’s sovereignty over the territory, at least until 2047. As outlined by a 2007 PRC National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPC-SC) decision, Hong Kong residents would be able to choose the chief executive by means of “universal suffrage” for the 2017 election.

However, China’s interpretation of “universal suffrage” differed from the definition pursued by the pan-democratic political camp in Hong Kong. When an August 2014 NPC-SC decision outlined that the Hong Kong public could only choose between two to three candidates, who would be selected through a screening committee biased towards Beijing, high school and university students felt particularly deceived. Several veteran pan-democratic activists had already formed the “Occupy Central” movement, which adhered to non-violent, consultative, civil disobedience norms. Without a representative government, demonstrations have become the go-to way for Hong Kong people to voice their opinions. So, following this tradition, young activists decided to move beyond the “Occupy Central” methods when they boycotted class in September 2014, and thus, launched the three-month mass demonstration known as “the Umbrella Movement.”

What is driving these movements? Economic factors or political values?

In all four cases, economic factors including youth unemployment, job insecurity, low wages, and social inequality are critical motivators driving the younger generation’s political actions. The youth unemployment rate in South Korea hit a record high of 12.5 percent in February, which is three times the overall unemployment rate, and about one-third of those who are employed hold temporary jobs. In Taiwan, between 2014 and 2015, youth unemployment averaged 12.9 percent, reaching a high of 14 percent in August 2014. Even for those with jobs in South Korea, real wages have not increased commensurate with the country’s economic growth. Over the past five years, the annual average increase in real wages was only 1.34 percent, barely half the average economic growth rate of 2.96 percent. The unemployment rates among Japanese youth are lower (8 percent in 2011 declining to 6.5 percent in 2014), but a large number of young Japanese with jobs consider themselves as temporary, contract or part-time workers. What’s startling is that the Japanese government “Survey of Employment of Young People” (ages 15-34) in 2014 found that a whopping 40.3 percent of the respondents stated that their “main source of income” comes from parents. In addition, a recent survey by the Japanese branch of the U.K.-based Big Issue Foundation, which assists the homeless, found “77 percent of the nation’s low-income unmarried youths live with their parents mainly for financial reasons.”[1] Even if these young folks have not launched their version of “Hell Nippon,” they certainly would sympathize with their Korean counterparts’ fears of economic uncertainty and worries about social marginalization through extended infantilization.

Inequality also is manifested in access to affordable housing, with both Taiwan and Hong Kong experiencing exorbitant real estate markets. In Taipei, the ratio of median housing price to median annual household income hit 15.7 in 2014, thus coining the phrase that you’d have to neither eat nor drink for 15 years to afford housing. In Hong Kong, 180-square-foot “mosquito apartments” can cost $US 517,000. Housing prices have steadily increased in South Korea as well, where the average price of an apartment is roughly $10,000 per 35 square feet. 

But compounding these economic disappointments is young citizens’ disillusionment with their respective governments. Since 2013, when President Park Geun-hye took office, Freedom House has downgraded South Korea’s score from the highest at #1 for political rights to #2 in 2014 and 2015. Its overall freedom score slipped from 1.5 to 2.0. Specifically, the report emphasized the “increased intimidation of political opponents of President Park Geun-hye and crackdowns on public criticism of her performance following the Sewol ferry accident.” Additionally, President Park’s administration has been plagued with controversies from the start, with charges of election meddling in her favor by the National Intelligence Service, a divisive debate over state-sanctioned history textbooks, which her administration has spearheaded Additionally, her administration’s arbitrary use of the controversial National Security Law to restrict freedom of speech and freedom of association reminded many Koreans of the pre-democratic Korea under the control of her father, the late President Park Chung-hee.

Like their peers in South Korea, the younger generation in Taiwan has only known a democratic Taiwan, so unlike their parents’ generation who lived under an authoritarian regime, they now seek a higher standard of governance and fairness and accountability from political institutions. But, the democracy they know is a young democracy, one trying to overcome, but still prone to, corruption, unfair practices and deep partisan divides. So, when they see problems in their democratic institutions, such as opacity in passing the CSSTA bill, they regard themselves as protectors of Taiwan’s democracy, justified in opposing the government and articulating their criticism.

The young Japanese of SEALDs profess a similar purpose: “We believe it is absolutely essential for [sic] opposing the current government to establish a unity of opposition parties and its supporters who share liberal values such as constitutionalism, social security and peace diplomacy. This unity will create a new political culture which encourages citizen’s political participation and revitalizes representational democracy.”[2]

Economic frustrations in Hong Kong have coalesced into a political pursuit toward a more representative and democratic political system. In particular, for the millennial generation, the year 2047 – when the one country, two systems agreement expires – is not a distant date in the future as it was for the creators of the Basic Law in the 1990s. Therefore, the young activists believe they should help set the parameters and pace of the political reforms they deem necessary to achieve a society they envision and that they, not their elders, will have to lead.

Implications for the future? Forerunner of divisive generational politics?

With the September 2016 legislative council (LegCo) and 2017 chief executive elections approaching, Hong Kong’s student groups have begun to organize beyond demonstrations into political parties. Joshua Wong, one of the student leaders during the Umbrella Movement, launched the Demosisto party, which plans to run several candidates in the LegCo elections, and calls for a referendum on one-country, two-systems and on self-determination after 2047. Other new parties led by young activists have taken even more extreme stances, such as the Hong Kong National Party, which calls for Hong Kong independence. The upcoming challenge for the new political parties, however, is that the pan-democratic camp is fractured, while the pro-Beijing establishment camp has remained more-or-less unified. As witnessed in the failed political reform bill in June 2015, which, as Richard Bush argues, could have provided a narrow path for a pan-democratic candidate, Beijing can ride out a political deadlock in Hong Kong. But, the younger generation in Hong Kong feels that they have little time to waste in implementing political reforms. The greatest challenge ahead of Hong Kong will be finding a way for the moderate and radical sides of the pan-democratic camp to compromise and unify.

The “Sunflower Movement” helped ignite the pan-green coalition in Taiwan, leading to demoralizing defeats for the Kuomintang (KMT) Party in both the local elections of November 2014 and presidential and legislative elections of January 2016. In addition to the DPP gaining a majority in the Legislative Yuan, the New Power Party, which emerged directly from the Sunflower Movement, won five legislative seats, making it the third largest party in Taiwan. During her inauguration speech on May 20, 2016, President Tsai Ing-wen focused on a wide range of domestic issues, and even spoke directly to young people, vowing to help change their current predicament through a new model of economic development “based on the core values of innovation, employment and equitable distribution.”

In reference to cross-Strait relations, Tsai did not say what Beijing wanted her to say, which means Taiwan can expect some economic and strategic blowback from the Mainland. In particular, if Beijing punishes Taiwan via economic tools, then that could derail Tsai’s plans to help pull young people out of their economic rut. So, while it’s tempting to say the Taiwanese youth movement succeeded in getting on the national agenda through the recent election, the Tsai administration has many hurdles to jump in order to fully achieve the movement’s objectives.

While Tsai has time to consider and clear the political hurdles, President Park is poised for a rough run in the final stage of her term as she faces a formidable progressive bloc in the new legislature. Political commentators are already discussing the prospects of a progressive-led Blue House in 2017 and what this would mean for ROK foreign policy, especially toward North Korea. But beyond the immediate policy implications, the generational divide that emerged so starkly in the recent election may portend significant changes for South Korean politics. What was noteworthy in this election was the role of the People’s Party, a new minor opposition that offered an alternative choice for young voters disillusioned by the traditional two parties. Led by an unassuming yet popular figure vowing to tackle the old establishment, the People’s Party managed to win a higher percentage (26.7 percent) of the popular vote than the Minjoo Party (25.5 percent) and contributed to a progressive majority despite concerns over vote-splitting. In fact, this third party only split regional loyalties, receiving a significant amount of the proportional votes from regions traditionally tied to the two major parties.

Northeast Asia is a region with the fastest-ageing population and the lowest birth rates in the world. It is possible that young people will increasingly find themselves at the bottom of an upside-down pyramid, holding up or held down by the size and weight of the older generations. The latter will form the majority of voters with the capacity to choose leaders and policies that support or undermine the interests of the younger generations. Youth today need to prepare for and practice greater political participation now if they are to lead their respective societies into the depths of the 21st century. Most likely, generational politics will become a sharper and more potent force in northeast Asia. 

[1] Tomohiro Osaki, “Japan’s low-earning adults find it hard to leave home, marry,” Japan Times, May 14, 2015. (accessed June 20, 2016).

[2] SEALDs Website. (accessed April 25, 2016).