‘We need more dreams’: Taiwan’s ‘Squad’ rallies youth ahead of election | World news


Lai Pin-yu, 27, is holding her last major campaign rally on the outskirts of Taipei. A rock band plays on stage, lit by swivelling green and purple lights. A huge screen flashes pictures of Lai, styled like an anime character. The audience sways, waving their flags back and forth, while a row of supporters facing the crowd jump up and down to the music.

Lai takes the stage. Wearing a blazer, slacks, and tennis shoes with big red ribbons, she says: “Politics need to bring people hope. We need more dreams and more stories that touch people.”

She pumps her first as the crowd chants, “Elect Lai Pinyu!”. She says: “I want to prove that Taiwanese women with dreams, young women who are not traditional politicians or the elite can still become legislators. Just the same, they can enter parliament.”

Lai is part of a group of five young, unorthodox candidates running for legislative seats in Taiwan’s general election on Saturday, in which incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen is seeking reelection against her main opponent, Han Kuo-yu, of the Kuomintang party (KMT). Some like to think of them as the “Taiwanese Squad”, after the four US congresswomen elected in 2018.

The election, which sees voters choose their next president as well as their legislative representatives, has implications for regional security, ties with China and the US, as well as the future of the functionally independent country home to 23 million people that Beijing says is an alienable part of China, despite the fact that the Chinese Communist party has never ruled the island.

Lai’s group – a coalition known as Democracy frontline, or qianxian, “frontline” – includes Freddy Lim, a death metal musician and lawmaker, Enoch Wu, a former special forces officer who was previously an investment banker, Chen Bo-wei, once a movie producer, as well as Hung Tzu-Yung, a marketing executive who got into politics after her army corporal brother died in 2013, causing mass protests over abuses in the military.

Lai Pin-yu goes on the campaign trail in a cosply costume in Taiwan.



Lai Pin-yu goes on the campaign trail in a cosply costume in Taiwan. Photograph: Lai Pin-yu

Lai was a prominent activist in the 2014 youth-led Sunflower movement against a trade deal with China where she was arrested after chaining herself to other protesters to block traffic. She is also well known for cosplay, dressing up as anime characters.

They are popular, often appearing in memes and viral videos, and known for their activism and socially liberal views.

Lev Nachman, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Irvine, who focuses on Taiwan, says: “The biggest thing that makes them similar to the Squad is they are progressive in a way that’s so radically different from what we think of when we imagine what a Taiwanese politician looks like. They are the young progressive faces that a lot of Taiwanese have been looking for.”

All five, either independent, third party or members of Tsai’s ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP), are calling for protection of Taiwan’s independence and oppose unification with China, something Chinese leader Xi Jinping has said is “inevitable”, to be achieved by all means necessary, including force.

Lai Pin-yu greets people on the street ahead of the Taiwan election.



Lai Pin-yu greets people on the street ahead of the Taiwan election. Photograph: Lai Pin-yu

Lai and her colleagues are part of broader efforts by the DPP, civil society groups and others to mobilise young voters – a generation sometimes described as tianrandu, the “naturally independent” born after the mid-1980s and who came of age in a democratic and economically stable Taiwan.

Previous generations lived through almost four decades of martial law under the Kuomintang, who fled to Taiwan after losing a civil war to the communists in 1949, and set up a rival Chinese government. Taiwan had previously been a Japanese colony until 1945. Martial law ended in 1987 and Taiwan has since become one of the most competitive democracies in the region.

Tsai, facing off against Han, the populist plainspoken mayor of Kaohsiung, is depending on younger voters to help repair losses her party suffered in 2018 mid-term elections.

After years of watching surveillance and repression increase in China, including months of police cracking down on protesters in Hong Kong whose one country two systems model is meant to be a model for Taiwan, younger Taiwanese tend to lean toward Tsai. They see her as better able to protect Taiwan’s sovereignty, compared with the explicitly pro-China KMT, which advocates for closer economic cooperation and trade.

“The role of young people [in this election] is incredibly important,” says Wu Jieh-min, a sociologist at Academica Sinica, noting that Tsai will need them to contest Han. “Han’s supporters are older and their turnout is higher and their intensity is stronger,” he said.

New voters between the ages of 20 and 23 make about 6% of Taiwan’s eligible electorate, a proportion large enough to help tip the election for Tsai or secure the hold of pan-green parties, those allied with the DPP, over parliament.

Freddy Lim performs in Taipei in 2015.



Freddy Lim performs in Taipei in 2015. Photograph: Handerson Yao/The Observer

But older voters make up the largest voting bloc and voter turnout has traditionally been lowest among younger people. In the 2016 election, average turnout of those between the ages of 20 and 39 was 58%, but 70% for those in their 50s and 74% for those 60 or older, according to data from the Central Election Commission.

The Frontline cohort also represents a generation of young Taiwanese who want to move beyond the question of independence to address social issues.

Kevin Zhou, 27, who works in Taipei, says: “My parents’ generation grew up when the political environment was more restrictive. Having enough to eat was what was important.

Freddy Lim



Freddy Lim sporting a more clean-cut image. Photograph: Billy Dai/AP

“But my generation grew up at a stable time. We care about public issues beyond the economy, such as the environment, and gender.”

Frontline candidates, several of whom have activist backgrounds, have pushed for same-sex marriage, indigenous rights, and reforms aimed at young people such as lowering the voting age from 20 to 18. Freddy Lim has called for more work to investigate abuses during the era of martial law.

Hung Tzu-Yung is running in Taichung and has campaigned on policies to improve air quality and child welfare. Enoch Wu is running in Taipei against the great-grandson of the KMT general and leader Chiang Kai-shek, and has made military reform a key pledge.

Hung Tzu-Yung, Enoch Wu, Lai Pin-Yu, Chen Bo-wei, and Freddy Lim are hoping to galvanise support among young people.



Hung Tzu-Yung, Enoch Wu, Lai Pin-Yu, Chen Bo-wei, and Freddy Lim are hoping to galvanise support among young people. Photograph: Facebook

For Lai, who has called for improved transportation links and elderly care, the point is to align with lawmakers of the same social values in a political landscape where the two main parties are not defined by liberal or conservative policies, so much as by their stance on China and statehood.

“I belong to the DPP but can this party or every member always have the same values or position as me? Not necessarily, because this is a big party. The good thing about Frontline is that at the very least, the few of us share very similar values. If we are all elected, we can work together and push proposals,” she says.

“For so long in political circles, we have not had young people’s voices. So us getting into office … and representing different communities is really important.”

Additional reporting by Lillian Yang and William Yang



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