Taiwan’s youth is often referred to as the ‘Strawberry Generation’, unable to work hard, selfish, spoiled, and disinterested in public affairs. Data shows that such labelling is untrue. In fact, the Taiwanese are shouldering the longest working hours in the world; a burden carried jointly across generations. Yet, one label given by the ‘veterans‘ of great political battles from 1980s and 1990s still sticks; young people nowadays are not interested in politics and do not care about the big issues society is facing. However, recent youth-driven protests over media acquisitions by Beijing-friendly businessmen prove critics wrong.
On 26 July 2012, the National Communication Commission (NCC) approved the acquisition of China Network Systems (Taiwan’s second largest cable TV network) by Want Want Group, effectively handing one third of the cable TV market over to the new owner. The Chairman of Want Want Group is Taiwan’s richest man Tsai Eng-meng, a controversial figure and advocate of prompt unification with China. According to a longitudinal survey , his views on unification are at odds with the majority of Taiwanese.
NCC’s decision prompted a first wave of student-led protests later followed by a larger demonstration that took place on September 1st this year. This time, the protest also addressed the smear campaign against academic Huang Kuo-chang, wrongly accused by Want Want Group media of paying students to attend the first protests. For the opponents of the deal, this was a clear example of why the merger should have been rejected by NCC.
In November earlier speculation that Want Want group intended to buy Next Media assets in Taiwan came true when an agreement was reached between Next Media founder Jimmy Lai (businessman and democracy advocate from Hong Kong) and a group of Taiwanese businessmen led by Tsai.
The Next Media deal (yet to be approved by NCC and other agencies) is perhaps even more troubling than the previous one. Apple Daily might be a sensationalist, tabloid-type newspaper but together with Next Magazine it represents a rare independent view in an environment where the stance of major news outlets can be identified either with the pro-independence Green camp or pro-unification/status-quo Blue camp. Should the deal be approved, Tsai & Co. will be in control of around 50% of news media in Taiwan. This led to the latest wave of protests. On 30 November, around 500 students gathered in front of the Joint Government Information Office to raise their concerns about media freedom and urge the responsible agencies to thoroughly review the deal and eventually reject it. Although numbers may seem to be modest, it represented participants from 36 universities nationwide. In addition, students from all around the world expressed their support through a campaign on Facebook.
There is indeed a need to worry about the future of media in Taiwan if both deals proceed. Fears that recent acquisitions are orchestrated by Beijing in order to manipulate public opinion in Taiwan through friendly media might be difficult to substantiate. Yet, the danger lies in editorial self-censorship by concerned media owners over protecting investments in China.
However, what is clear is that civil society in Taiwan is strong and the allegedly apathetic ‘Strawberry Generation’ is increasingly taking the initiative. Certainly, opposition representatives endorsed the protests but the ‘strawberry generation’ are largely non-partisan in nature. This is something relatively new and it shows disconnection (and frustration to some degree) of young people from traditional blue-green political divide but not from politics per se. For a stable democracy, a strong civil society is as important as media plurality. Taiwan still has both.