The rise of student activism in Northeast Asia — Tai Wei Lim

OCT 13 — In the past year and a half, Northeast Asia witnessed a wave of public protests, from the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan to Occupy Central in Hong Kong to the protests in Japan against the self-defence Bills.

What they all had in common was the strong presence of students, drawn into the streets by the conviction that their voices would not be heard through the electoral process alone. More broadly, they signified how young people across Asia are shaking off decades of public apathy and showing themselves as the new face of democracy in North-east Asia.

The reasons for the protests were diverse. In Taiwan, students were against a trade pact with China. In Hong Kong, university students were angered by China’s pre-screening of candidates for the island’s Chief Executive post.

In Japan, students were part of the protests held every weekend from August to September to protest against changes to the law that would, among other things, allow Japanese troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War II.

The number of people hitting Japanese streets was the greatest in more than 50 years for a protest of this nature, peaking at 120,000 on Aug 30. Occupy Central saw no less than tens of thousands camped in the heart of Hong Kong, and the Sunflower Movement saw a 100,000-turnout at its peak.

A trademark of these expressions of democracy was growing pluralism in all three places. In the case of the Taiwanese, while the government and the business establishment were keen on the trade pact with China, the students felt it would hurt Taiwan’s economy and make it vulnerable to China.

In Hong Kong, while the government, pro-Beijing and pro-government forces as well as a section of the business sector were in favour of China pre-selecting candidates for Chief Executive, the students raised concerns over the composition of the pre-screening committee and of the very procedure itself. Eventually, the Hong Kong protestors succeeded in drawing international attention to their cause, while the pro-democrats in the legislature voted against the universal suffrage reform package with a pre-screened Chief Executive candidate.

The same feature of pluralism was visible in Japan. A reinvigorated conservative establishment returning to power in 2013 pushed forth collective self-defence Bills to deal with what it calls an increasingly dangerous neighbourhood marked by a nuclear North Korea and an assertive China flexing its muscles in maritime disputes.

But the liberal camp, made up of students, academics and housewives, was not convinced. Some feared that collective self-defence would require Japanese youths to fight in global conflicts and attract retaliation from enemies and terrorists. In all three cases, student voices created public awareness of these debates.

Shared experiences

Unlike in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the left-leaning, liberal and moderate forces and protests in Japan were arguably less successful, and failed to stop the passing of the collective self-defence legislation which became law on Sept 19.

But the presence of student protestors, academics and housewives signal that these groups are now standing up for their beliefs. In the past, students and younger Japanese were associated with political apathy, detached ignorance and nonchalant attitudes.

Beyond just showing that democracy is alive and well in Japan, the protestors also raised public awareness of the implications of the security Bills, and this may have played a considerable role in causing an almost double-digit drop in public support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe following the passage of the collective self-defence Bills in the Upper House of Parliament.

What are the implications of the rise of student activism in North-east Asia? First, we may be witnessing the rise of a new generation of young North-east Asians who are likely to fill the future ranks of liberals and democracy advocates in the region.

Second, they will be shaped by the shared experiences of the past year or so, whether this be the Hong Kong police’s use of tear gas to disperse protestors, or the success in lobbying against a trade pact in Taiwan and the higher public awareness of Constitution-related issues in Japan. The student activists have discovered that it is possible to make their voices heard through the public airing of grievances. With the exception of a few brief clashes in Mong Kok, Occupy Central was largely peaceful. Postwar democratic systems in Japan and Taiwan are resilient and mature enough to handle dissent without severe public disruptions or violence.

Third, it also showed that social media technologies and platforms have made it possible to spread alternative viewpoints, mobilise students for political gatherings, and advertise their causes globally.

This was most evident in Japan, after mainstream media blacked out a self-immolation protest in Tokyo against the collective self-defence Bills. The incident, however, went viral on social media.

The rise of student activism and the tools that empower them are likely to shape the future of political discourse, social activism and democracy in North-east Asia. And Japan, as the region’s oldest modern democracy, is at the very centre of this trend. — TODAY

* Dr Tai Wei Lim is senior lecturer at UniSIM and adjunct research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute. 

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.