It was a Sunday not so different from when super typhoon Soudelor ravaged through Taiwan, with crazy rain and gusty wind.
Taichung’s Taiwan Boulevard was again packed with cars desperately trying to leave the nightmarish traffic jam that has become the symbol of the central Taiwanese metropolis. Anxiously staring into my smartphone, I knew I was already late for a long-awaited meeting with a high-school student from National Taichung First Senior High School.
He was not just a regular high-schooler who finds textbooks dry and boring. In the past three months, Chen Chien-hsiun (陳建勳) has become the leader of one of the most grave and dramatic public protests in Taiwan’s recent history. I had the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about this watershed event for Taiwan’s younger generation of activists.
A summer typhoon
It all started on May 1, the day of Taichung First Senior High School’s one hundredth anniversary of its founding. In the middle of the schoolyard, several students held a peaceful sit-in, with banners and signs bearing slogans. They were protesting against proposed revisions to the high school curriculum, designated by the Ministry of Education, that would teach history from a China-centric perspective.
They became the first senior high school students in Taiwan to stand up and publicly object the government’s revision of the high school curriculum—against the lack of transparency and accountability, as well as the content. However, the media barely paid any attention to their protests, and no one seemed to take interest in this issue. To Chen, it couldn’t even be called an issue back then.
However, things started to change at the end of May, when the students started to publicly promote the issue through speeches and flyer distribution. Other high school groups, bearing similar names such as “I’m from xx High School, and I object the illegal curriculum revision,” also started appearing on social media. Student in high schools across the country began to form, and that’s when the issue became visible to the general public.
The activities that followed gradually brought these high school students together. They coalesced around the protest in front of the Ministry of Education on July 5, and the siege and overnight occupation of the Ministry of Education on July 10.
Throughout all this, the Ministry of Education and the administration never responded positively to the appeals brought forth by the students. The powers that be replied: “accept the reality, and look to the future.” To Chen, statements like this was not a response at all. He realized that the students need to bring their peaceful protests to the next level, otherwise the government will only keep ignoring their appeals.
“Right after one of our leaders, Lin Guan-Hua (林冠華), committed suicide,” said Chen, “we decided to adopt a more aggressive kind of protest.”
As a result, they organized high school students all across Taiwan and rushed into the Ministry of Education on July 30th, and successfully occupied the courtyard. They thought the police would have dispersed them sooner or later, but Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je announced that students could legally stay in the courtyard. This announcement allowed students to extend their occupation into a seven-day campaign that ultimately ended when super typhoon Soudelor arrived.
The seven-day occupation brought the movement to a new level, but its abrupt end also made the general public wonder if this was just another movement that couldn’t be sustained over the course of time.
However, Chen said that the movement won’t just stop here, as they will continue to monitor the Ministry of Education’s next move, waiting to see whether the selection of the next curriculum deliberation committee’s members can match the students’ expectation. They will also monitor each school’s selection of textbooks, as the Ministry of Education announced that schools are free to choose their own curriculum. Chen said high school students will try to convince their teachers to choose the older curriculum over the newer curriculum.
A new fight for a new generation
Chen said the Sunflower Movement last year was a wake-up call to many of his fellow young activists. “Before 318 [Sunflower Movement], not too many of us were paying attention to social issues,” said Chen.
“But we never thought of copying the Sunflower Movement during the entire three months. Our original plan was only to surround the Ministry of Education from the outside. It only became a legitimate occupation when Mayor Ko decided not to disperse us and let us stay in the courtyard. Some of the Sunflower participants did come and share their experiences with us during the seven-day occupation.”
Even though the two protests were about separate topics (the Sunflower Movement was triggered by a move to approve the trade in services agreement with China), there is a common thread of young people voicing their frustrations against their elders. The anti-revision movement isn’t just their fight against the current administration, but it is also a tug of war against their parents.
The parents and the students grew up in drastically different periods in Taiwan’s history, with drastically different idea of what it means to be a “citizen.” The older generation, who grew up during KMT’s martial law period, had limited and censored information from the rest of the world. To them, the government was an authority to be obeyed.
Whereas the younger generation grew up with free access to information and infinite number of perspectives; they began to realize that the KMT is not as good as their parents or the textbooks described, and the ideological gap between both sides started to emerge.
For Chen and many of his peers, their participation in the nationwide protest automatically connected them to the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in their parents’ minds. Critics of the protests accused the DPP of manipulating the students. According to Chen, the DPP never tried to approach him or other high school leaders over the course of the protest. Meanwhile, parents are busy trying to talk their children off the idea of getting involved in politics.
“As the younger generation, when we see our government becoming incompetent, we feel like it’s our responsibility to monitor every move they make,” said Chen. “But then, many of the parents will do whatever they can to keep us away from participating in the protest.”
Some parents would forcefully drag their children away from the scene, while others warned to cut off financial support to their children. Very few are as lucky as Chen, whose family didn’t agree with his actions but didn’t intervene.
It started and ended with an untrustworthy minister
On August 3, two days before the first phase of their protest ended, the high school student leaders had a meeting with the Minister of Education, Wu Si-hua (吳思華). After over two hours of negotiations, the two sides failed to reach a compromise. Chen was part of that meeting.
What was said exactly during the negotiation is still vague to the general public. According to Chen, Minister Wu not only denied that the curriculum revision is illegal, he also refused to acknowledge the contentions within the new curriculum. He said since he wasn’t the one that signed it into law, he should not take political responsibility.
“He admitted that there are many flaws in the new curriculum, but when we asked him whether he was willing to put it on hold, and tried to fix the mistakes through careful deliberation, he simply refused,” said Chen. “He said there was nothing wrong to use the new and old curricula simultaneously, and since the textbooks were already printed, he couldn’t retract the new curriculum so abruptly.”
When the students finally confronted Wu about the rumor that the curriculum revisions were a move to benefit the ruling KMT in next year’s presidential election, Wu said the Ministry of Education would not give up the revisions simply based on the curriculum revision committee’s convener, who told a Chinese media that the revisions would be beneficial to the KMT’s electoral outcome.
“He said we couldn’t just focus on an individual, but we needed to look at the entire curriculum,” said Chen.
From short-term occupation to long-term education
Although the first phase of their protest ended amid the arrival of super typhoon Soudelor, the students now had more time to regroup and plan their next step. According to Chen, the organizational structure was designed to adapt to the unpredictable nature of short-term, large scale protests, as a top-down structure can effectively organize students to deal with sudden changes. But they now plan to transform into more community-based type of organization, and to increase their school-level involvement by holding workshops at different schools and communities.
“We hope to inform the general public about the long-term effect of this issue,” said Chen. “We hope to help them think about more than just the curriculum, but also reflect on what they can do with Taiwan’s education. We are also planning to form regional organizations to monitor every move the schools make.”
But what happens if the Ministry of Education fails to live up to its promise again? Chen said then the next protest will involve more than just high school students, but the general public as well. One of the biggest difference between the Anti-revision movement and the Sunflower Movement is that the participants are even younger this time around. While the services trade pact is likely to affect Taiwan’s economy, the curriculum revision sounds as simple as changing a couple of words in the textbooks. However, Chen believes the effect is more than just a textual difference, because the textual changes can rewrite Taiwan’s history from a totally different perspective. As a result, it is important for the Ministry of Education to fulfill their promises.
“The students won’t rule out the possibility of another large scale protest, because if they refuse to fulfill their promises again, it means our previous protest is completely in vain,” said Chen.
Chen thinks the Anti-revision movement is a wake up call to everyone, because it forces them to pay attention to more than just their own lives.
“A movement like this is beneficial to the overall enhancement of social value,” said Chen. “It helps to limit the government’s power and forces them to follow the law and citizen’s wills.”
While it is too early to say whether the students have successfully forced the government to compromise their position on the high school curriculum, they have definitely inspired more younger Taiwanese activists to stand up and fight fore Taiwan’s future.
(Feature photo of National Taichung First Senior High School, from taiwanus.net)
Author: William Yang is a freelance writer and photographer based in Taiwan, with a passion for human rights and storytelling. He holds a Master of Journalism degree from Temple University, and has extensive experiences interning at global NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Mercy Corps.