The tumult that swept Taiwan’s independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party to power over the weekend, crushing the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, began as a revolt among young people once disparagingly referred to by their elders as strawberries—soft, self-satisfied and apathetic.
The issue that galvanized them: hostility toward China and its territorial designs on the island, layered on top of fears about their economic future.
Two years ago, they found their voice in the Sunflower Movement when student protesters stormed parliament to block another in a series of trade pacts with China that President Ma Ying-jeou was trying to ram through. Critics accused him of pandering to corporate fat cats with Chinese interests at the expense of smaller manufacturers who generate local jobs. Entry-level pay in Taiwan hasn’t changed in almost two decades, while housing costs have climbed sky-high.
Nobody would think of calling Sophie Su a strawberry. Here in Tainan, a graffiti-filled city in the island’s south where anti-mainland sentiment is ingrained in the culture, she fixes concerts for rappers like Tiger Gui (the stage name of a local pancake vendor) who pumps out aggressively pro-independence messages.
““Hey, I am Taiwanese. What do you want to do about it?,” go the lyrics to one of Tiger’s expletive-laced raps.
Ms. Su wears her long hair dyed brown, and her large round eyes betray her Spanish heritage. Colonizers from Spain arrived in Tainan in the 17th century.
“Our position is simple,” she says, referring to China’s threat to use force to unify Taiwan with the mainland. “You can’t point a gun at our heads and ask us to be friends.”
As soon as the Sunflower protests erupted, Ms. Su hopped on a train to Taipei and slept rough in front of the legislature. When she saw the youthful faces in the crowds, some barely in their teens, she knew a social revolution was under way—and that she would be part of it. “I couldn’t stop crying,” she said.
President-elect Tsai Ing-wen rode this generational fervor to power. She hired campaign organizers sympathetic to the student cause, clambered aboard social media and used it as an engine for a national crusade for economic revival that excited the middle classes and small business holders too.
Her political challenge in office will be to hold that coalition together without blowing up relations with China. She’s not in favor of independence, but the size of her victory and the passion of her supporters are certain to make Beijing nervous.
Meanwhile, the grey-haired grandees who run the Kuomintang missed the trend completely—and the party that Beijing had banked on to deliver a political deal on unification, to match the economic ones, may never recover.
Tainan offers a glimpse of the future that Ms. Tsai has in mind. A Democratic Progressive Party stronghold, it has self-consciously shaped itself as a counter to many things that the Kuomintang stood for in the eyes of much of the electorate: big business, iconic urban landmarks, showy infrastructure and—worst of all—both commercial and cultural coziness with the mainland.
The city has become a haven for younger Taiwanese fleeing Taipei’s high costs. Amid old temple courtyards and alleyways the newcomers are defining new values and lifestyles for a postindustrial era. Money isn’t everything; they work to get by. Graduates open tiny bed-and-breakfast hostels and hole-in-the-wall jewelry shops. Technicians apply their digital design skills to household ornaments. Architects transform row houses from the Qing dynasty into coffee shops.
Local government seeds some of these startups with funds—and then stands back. “Our best policy to attract young people is to let them do whatever they want,” says Liu Shih-chung, Tainan’s Deputy Secretary-General.
Mainland tourists that have swamped Taipei aren’t especially welcome. “They’re too noisy,” says Mr. Liu. Japan sends the most visitors.
The incoming national administration plans to encourage companies to diversify away from China, while providing affordable housing and boosting social welfare. Tainan never developed much mainland business in the first place, and to underline its international aspirations the city recently declared English to be its official second language.
With the influx of creative talent has come a vibrant subculture of artists and musicians. Their language is Taiwanese, not the mandarin Chinese of the capital. And their public murals and graffiti, poetry and lyrics, promote a Taiwan identity rooted in pride of the island’s democracy.
Among them is Ms. Su, who grew up in the city in the shadow of a tall — and locally revered — ginkgo tree. For her parent’s generation, Taiwan independence might have been a political goal. To her it is a lived experience; she feels herself to be fully Taiwanese, not Chinese. “Our language is different, our written characters are different, our cultures are different,” she says.
The “strawberry generation” has come of age; bridging the differences with China just got much harder.