Why the 2020 Taiwan presidential election is a battle of the generations

With less than two weeks before Taiwanese head to the polls on 11 January 2020 to elect their next President, generational divides have become more apparent: while the younger generation tend to support Tsai Ing-wen and her progressive reforms on issues such as LGBT rights, the older generation look to Han Kuo-yu for a sense of stability and keeping things as they used to be. Ng Soon Kiat looks at what each generation says about the other, and what the green and blue camps are doing to woo young voters.
Supporters of Kuomintang's presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu react to his speech during an election rally in Taichung, Taiwan on December 29, 2019. (Ann Wang/Reuters)
Supporters of Kuomintang's presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu react to his speech during an election rally in Taichung, Taiwan on December 29, 2019. (Ann Wang/Reuters)

(Photos: Ng Soon Kiat, unless otherwise stated)

As a die-hard fan of Kuomintang (KMT) presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu, 64 year-old Wang Dicong* hopes that his family also supports Han. However, much to the Taichung businessman’s dismay, his son has other ideas.       

“I asked him to vote for Han Kuo-yu, but he didn’t want to. We quarrelled and he even scolded me,” an agitated Wang says, choking back tears during an interview with Lianhe Zaobao at Han’s presidential rally in Taichung held in mid-December 2019. 

“My son is disobedient, and he has the cheek to scold his father,” he continues. “We as parents have slogged our entire lives to earn money, buy a house… You tell me, how do we leave them an inheritance? Of course I’ll want to spend all I can. If there’s still money left, I’d rather donate it. Since they have a mind of their own, let them settle their future finances themselves!”  

Elsewhere, 28-year-old Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) supporter Lin Yuqi, who is in favour of President Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election, is also in a cold war with his parents. He says, “[The Kuomintang] is like a religion to them, just like the Communist Party of China (CPC). I feel like I’m losing my parents soon.”   

Generational divide    

In the face of the fast-approaching Taiwan presidential and legislative elections, tensions are rising between generations of Taiwanese. Amidst vicious competition between Taiwan’s pan-Blue and pan-Green coalitions, societal fault lines were once drawn between people from different counties and cities, or ethnic communities, and between those who supported reunification or independence. Now, the fissures are most prominent between the postwar baby boomers and their offspring, who hold vastly different views on societal issues like national identity, distribution of resources, and values for improvement. Encouraged by politicians’ propaganda and the amplifying effect of new media, these two generations have developed clear boundaries and irreconcilable viewpoints.    

Supporters at Han Kuo-yu's rally in Taichung in mid-December.
Supporters at Han Kuo-yu's rally in Taichung in mid-December. 

Indicatively, a public opinion poll of Taiwan’s first-time voters** from Business Weekly found that close to 50% of participants had differing political viewpoints from their parents. This is significant because according to an announcement from Taiwan’s Central Election Commission (CEC), of the total of 19,340,076 people that are eligible to vote during the 2020 presidential elections, 1,186,685 or 6% of them are first-time voters.               

Generally speaking, it can be observed from various public opinion polls recently that supporters of Tsai and Han are delineated by age. Tsai and Han are practically neck-and-neck among silver-haired voters aged above 60. Among the middle-aged voters between 40 and 59, Han is leading his opponents by an average of nearly 10%. As for the younger generation aged between 20 and 39, Tsai holds an average of 60% of support, far ahead of Han, who only holds over 20% of support. Some analysts have thus said that, the 2020 elections held on 11 January is actually the battle of the generations.     

“Dried mango” and Taiwan’s demise 

“The current generational difference or conflict was not such a common phenomenon in the past,'' says Professor Wang Yeh-lih of the Department of Political Science at the National Taiwan University, and longtime observer of the Taiwan elections and party politics. He thinks that with time, the difference in viewpoints between Taiwan’s younger and older generation gradually widened as a result of their different upbringings, education backgrounds, and social experiences. This difference is especially obvious in issues pertaining to cross-strait relations and national identity.    

Professor Wang says, “The younger generation are the ‘naturally independent’ generation. They grew up under the reign of DPP’s former president, Chen Shui-bian, and current president Tsai, and received an education that emphasises Taiwan’s autonomy. Thus, their standpoint of Taiwan’s position as a country is aligned with the DPP’s.”

Tsai, who holds the campaign slogan of “defending the country and protecting Taiwan’s sovereignty” during this election, has been displaying a resolute rejection of mainland China’s “one country, two systems” as the right formula for Taiwan. Also, by showing solidarity with Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protesters, she successfully garnered support from the younger generation. This has helped her revive support for the DPP after its miserable defeat at the 2018 local elections.  

Supporters at Tsai Ing-wen's rally. (Democratic Progressive Party)
Supporters at Tsai Ing-wen's rally in early December 2019. (Democratic Progressive Party)

Recently, the Tsai camp has also been strengthening its attack on Han, who had once visited the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong. They continually emphasise that Han is on the side of red China. Some legislative candidates are even rallying against KMT legislative candidate and retired general Wu Sz-huai in an attempt to intensify the younger generation’s fear of the KMT’s nomination of allegedly pro-China legislators who are elected based on proportional voting for political parties rather than running in districts. Wu had previously travelled to China to listen to Xi Jinping’s speech, and had also given suggestions to the People’s Liberation Army on how they could tackle the US’s deployment of military forces in the region. He has since been painted as  a “traitor” by his opposing parties.           

Professor Niu Tse-hsun of the Chinese Culture University’s Department of Advertising gives his take on age-related political alignments: “The older generation still identifies with the ideal of a Greater China. The younger generation, on the other hand, has lost such a sentiment under the guidance of the DPP’s teaching materials that emphasises the removal of Greater China. Thus, Tsai’s “dried mango” scenario is easily operable.” [NB: Dried mango (芒果干 mangguo gan) is a popular snack eaten in Taiwan which sounds similar to 亡国感 (wangguo gan) or a feeling that the doom of the nation is near.]

Lin Thung-hong, research fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, believes that wangguo gan is a reflection of generational politics to a certain extent. “The older generation identifies stronger with China and is a little confused on issues regarding national identity. They perhaps think that reunification is feasible as well. Thus, the younger generation is not fighting against the threat from China, but against the threat coming from their own parents.”   

According to Business Weekly’s public opinion poll on first-time voters, “the state’s sovereignty being threatened” is the topic that young Taiwanese are most concerned about. They’re even more concerned about this than the plight of having low incomes. As for issues pertaining to identity, a whopping 83.1% of young people consider themselves “Taiwanese”, a mere 1% see themselves as “Chinese”, and 11.5% thinks that they’re both Taiwanese and Chinese. For that matter, a study conducted by the Election Study Centre of the National Chengchi University found that 59.6% of Taiwan’s entire population (includes all age groups) see themselves as Taiwanese, 3.6% consider themselves Chinese, and 36.5% thinks that they’re both Taiwanese and Chinese.   

“If you’re going to vote for Tsai Ing-wen, don’t come back.”

— Hu Yongneng, 60, Han supporter 

30-year-old Chen Yiru, an engineer from a family who supports the pan-Blue coalition tells us that his 61-year-old father believes that “there’s nothing wrong” with being pro-China as it’s not only beneficial to Taiwan’s economic development, but also does no harm to Taiwan’s freedom and democracy.   

However, Chen disagrees. He says, “In view of the recent happenings in Hong Kong, and KMT’s blatant support for the CPC, I really feel that next year could be the last time Taiwan holds its elections. There’s still some time before election day and I’ll try to talk to them about it. Every vote is worth fighting for right now.”   

But in the eyes of 60-year-old businessman, Hu Yongneng, who’s a fan of Han, Taiwan’s younger generation has been “too brainwashed” by Tsai, who has “the media and an ‘internet army’ at her disposal”.   

He says, “Hong Kong is Hong Kong. Hong Kong, without question, is China’s Hong Kong. Taiwan is Taiwan. The Republic of China, Taiwan, has nothing to do with Hong Kong. The problem with today’s young people is that they are overly controlled by the Internet.” Hu, who’s from Taichung, also points out that his son, who works in Taipei, once asked if he should return home to cast his vote. He told his son, “If you’re going to vote for Tsai Ing-wen, don’t come back.”

The values proposition

Another core issue in Taiwan’s inter-generational opposition is differences in values.

In May this year, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan legalised same-sex marriage, making Taiwan the first region in Asia to do so, but also sparking strong reactions from conservatives. In late 2018, several staunchly religious civic groups won big in three public votes against LGBTs, which were started in the name of safeguarding family values.

CCU’s Prof Niu says, “The older generation voted down same-sex marriage, but that did not sit well at all with the young people. Then the law was effected, which sparked a new wave of conflict.”

Dentist Lin Shengxiang, 28, a supporter of same-sex marriage, fell out with his anti-LGBT father over the issue. He feels that the older generation has been “brainwashed” by conservative thinking and education, and so they reject new information and the values they hold do not progress with the times.

Lin says, “Tsai’s reforms have exposed hidden social issues… there are still a lot of conservative and stubborn old people in Taiwan. Like my dad; I haven’t spoken to him in over a year, because I seriously despise him.”

In a commentary entitled “Han-mania: Maybe We All Had a Hand”, youth column writer Daniel Chou noted that when young people embrace progressive values, the older generation cannot understand, which is why when Han Kuo-yu appeared with his “same values”, many seniors felt that he was a light in the darkness.

Chou wrote, “Nobody wants to feel stupid and admit that their logic is wrong. But the more the younger generation brings in new values to ridicule the conservatives, the more Han Kuo-yu’s supporters will feel that they need to unite against external forces. This is why, strangely enough, a lot of people with high social status still blindly support Han Kuo-yu. Can’t they see the flawed logic behind all the slogans?”

Shi Qinggui, 72, is originally from Taichung, but has been doing business in New Zealand for a long time. He recently returned to Taiwan to help with Han Kuo-yu’s campaign efforts, and was not happy with how Ms Tsai bulldozed through the same-sex law.

He says, “I would rather be taken in once by Han Kuo-yu, than be taken in twice by Tsai Ing-wen.”

Green camp aims for youth vote

The blue and green camps both see the youth vote as the key to victory, and ground that is worth fighting for. But while Ms Tsai holds a firm lead in support among young people, observers feel that voting among young people is generally low, so they may not have as much influence on the results as might be expected. With the clock winding down to the election, Ms Tsai’s camp is also putting on one final burst to win the youth vote.

Tsai Ing-wen has introduced various reforms that are popular among young people in Taiwan. (Democratic Progressive Party)
Tsai Ing-wen has introduced various reforms that are popular among young people in Taiwan. (Democratic Progressive Party)

The CEC has not published voting numbers according to age, but from its sample studies into voting behaviour, only 58% of people aged 20 to 39 across Taiwan turned out to vote. Among these, voting was highest among those aged 20, at about 62%; voting was lowest among those aged 24, at just 55%.

Some analyses point out that age 20 marks the first time one exerts voting rights and officially takes part in politics, and young people are more willing to go home to vote; at 24, the novelty is gone, and if there is no strong draw, coupled with the costs of voting — such as plane and train tickets, which are not cheap — voting numbers would naturally be low.

NTU’s Prof Wang notes that while competition is intense between the blue and green candidates, the election atmosphere on the ground is actually quite cold. He expects that voting numbers will not be too high — at most “a little bit higher” than the 66% in 2016. He says: “While there is more inter-generational opposition, going by various polls, there is already a very large gap between Ms Tsai and Mr Han. So, many people may not be very inclined to spend so much money to, say, go from Taipei to Kaohsiung to vote. So this large gap may lead to lower voting numbers.”

Prof Wang’s view reflects the concern of the green camp. Japan’s former representative to Taiwan, Numata Mikio, recently said that while polls show a 20-point gap between Tsai and Han, the actual election results might show a difference of five points or less. The DPP also says this shows the green camp cannot let down its guard.

To get young voters to vote, the Tsai camp has stepped up publicity through advertisements and video clips, including calling on young Taiwanese overseas to come home and vote. Earlier this month, they also launched a recruitment exercise for civilian ballot examiners, to get people more motivated to vote, by getting them involved through actual participation in election activities.

Also, since this March, the education ministry has sent at least four letters to tertiary institutions suggesting that final examinations be brought forward to avoid clashing with election day, drawing criticism from the opposition for a lack of neutrality.

Tsai supporters at a rally, early December 2019. (DPP)
Young DPP supporters at a rally, December 2019. (Democratic Progressive Party)

In addition, the DPP youth team has launched a “homecoming” scheme, speaking on the streets to urge young people to come home to vote, and spreading the word about safeguarding sovereignty, freedom, and democracy, in a bid to fight a sense of wangguo gan.

Wu Jun-yen, DDP’s head of youth development, says, “We do not just encourage young people to come home to vote. We also encourage them to do a bit more, like talking to seniors and family and friends, and telling them why they’re making their choice.”

In the face of his opponent’s incisive targeting of the youth vote, Han said in a recent online interview that he was “not at all worried”, and even asked young people to think about why their parents and grandparents could not accept Tsai’s leadership.

Is controversial Han Kuo-yu the biggest culprit in inter-generational rift?

In last year’s Kaohsiung mayoral election, Han Kuo-yu won over the grassroots with his image as the “vegetable seller”, but was also said to stir up opposition between the masses and the upper rungs of society. One year on, some comments attribute the opposition seen in this time of extremes to the often unpredictable and politically “un-Kuomintang” Han Kuo-yu.

NTU’s Prof Wang notes that if the KMT’s presidential candidate was not Han, there might be less inter-generational opposition.

He says, “For example, if it was (former New Taipei Mayor) Eric Chu who was nominated, his administrative experience would gain the support of some young people. They would not label him an ‘idiot’, or a ‘runaway’, as Han has been.”

The KMT youth team previously identified a few reasons for Han’s lack of support among young people, including “running away” soon after getting elected as mayor to join the presidential election, giving poor replies at city council meetings, frequent sexism and vulgar language, unpopular team members, and being held hostage by certain media.

Han Kuo-yu's supporters at a rally.
Han Kuo-yu's supporters at a rally.

However, CCU’s Prof Niu feels that it is unfair to attribute all responsibility to Han. After all, the one driving the controversial reforms is Tsai Ing-wen. He says, “I think as long as one is a politician, one has to bear some responsibility. Every election, group sentiments are called into play, and a lot is said about cross-strait relations and US-China-Taiwan relations. So all politicians bear the greatest responsibility when it comes to divisions between various groups, and inter-generational conflicts.”

“Even if there is a rift, that’s fine. As long as the spirit of democracy is still there, the wounds will heal with some stitching."

— Chen Yingrong, 33

But to young voter Chen Yingrong, 33, the politicians are not at fault. “How could the people of Taiwan allow someone like Han Kuo-yu to become a presidential candidate? Political parties just bring out whichever candidate people are talking about the most, and who has the most definite votes. It’s we the people ourselves who bear the greatest responsibility.”

She also feels that inter-generational disagreements are just temporary, because family is family. “Even if there is a rift, that’s fine. As long as the spirit of democracy is still there, the wounds will heal with some stitching. It will be ugly, and it won’t be perfect, but just as the sentiments and differences between people who came to Taiwan from various parts of China have gradually lessened over the past 60 years, us Taiwanese will go on.”


* pseudonym

** voters who have reached the age of 20 and have gained the right to vote at the presidential elections for the first time