A Young Democracy is a Strong Democracy: Civil Rights of Taiwan’s Children
In 2017, when 16-year-old Wang Hsuan-ju found out about the civic participation platform “Join” run by the National Development Council during civics class in high school, she proposed the “nationwide progressive ban on the use of disposable utensils.” Concerned about environmental issues, Wang Hsuan-ju estimated that more than eight million tons of garbage flows into the ocean every year. Most disposable plastic utensils cannot decompose and further endanger the survival of marine life.
Wang Hsuan-ju’s proposal quickly garnered the support of 5,253 signatories. With this support, government departments, environmental groups, and disposable utensil companies held meetings and discussed solutions, and eventually reached a consensus to accelerate a plastic restriction policy. Due to Wang Hsuan-ju’s proposal, the Environmental Protection Administration has restricted government departments, schools, and department stores from providing disposable plastic straws, beginning July 1st, 2019.
Wang Hsuan-ju’s story reflects the trend of the current generation of Taiwanese youth participating in public affairs through the internet.
The development of the internet in Taiwan has advanced alongside Taiwan’s process of democratization. In 1996, the Republic of China (ROC) government held its first direct presidential election. That year also saw the global rise of the internet. Taiwan’s geography, being an island only 394 kilometers long and requiring only an hour and a half to travel its length by high-speed rail, gave the island a major advantage in achieving universal internet access.
Currently, “broadband human rights” have become a core policy of the government. 87% of people over the age of 12 currently have internet access, and for teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19, access is even higher, at 94%. Having been born into a democratic society and the world of the internet, it is only natural that Taiwanese teenagers express and act upon their opinions online.
Many junior and senior high school students joined virtual hands in solidarity through the internet during the March 18th movement in 2014, to protest the Ministry of Education’s adjustments to the new curriculum through “black box procedures” in 2015. Close to 300 senior high schools through-out Taiwan used student-led Facebook pages to establish inter-school alliances, triggering a large-scale student movement and the occupation of the square in front of the Ministry of Education, finally prompting all legislative parties to request that the Ministry of Education review the curriculum.
After that experience, the government developed online platforms for citizens to participate in policy discussions together with the civic tech community ‘g0v’, with the purpose of establishing a channel for direct communication from and between citizens. The Join platform, directly maintained by the government, is one such channel by which citizens can discuss most policy issues. Since its launch in 2015, the Join platform has garnered 10.6 million visitors – almost half of Taiwan’s population.
On the Join platform, teenagers comprise the most active contributors in pushing for change. In addition to Wang Hsuan-ju’s successful proposal to restrict the use of plastic straws, 17-year-old high school student Jackroy Liu proposed that “human rights issues should not be subject to referendums” on the platform in December last year, receiving swift public response and prompting various ministries and relevant initiative groups to cooperate and discuss the issue. The final draft amendment to the Referendum Act proposed by the cabinet included provisions that human rights issues should not be subject to referendums.
It is not only popularization of the internet spurring youths’ participation, but also the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in Taiwan. In June 2014, Taiwan promulgated the ‘Implementation Act of the Convention on the Rights of the Child’, which was implemented on International Children’s Rights Day on November 20th of the same year. Since then, the UNCRC has become an important basis upon which the government promotes children- and youth-related policies.
In the cabinet-level Youth Advisory Council meeting held in March 2018, a youth councillor requested that schools below the high school level establish independent feedback reflection units, providing students with safe and effective channels for giving feedback and appealing for assistance. The Ministry of Education has begun planning for establishment of a student appeal platform. In May 2019, the legislature passed the sixth draft amendment of the ‘Implementation Act of the Convention on the Rights of the Child’, stipulating that the Child and Youth Welfare and Rights Promotion Group established by the cabinet should include child and youth representatives under the age of 18, allowing children’s rights of social participation in Taiwan to make another big leap forward.
In Taiwanese society, educational issues that are deeply influenced by young people receive a lot of attention. According to the Taiwanese media’s ‘2019 Social Innovation Survey’, the Taiwanese people and the social sector emphasize “quality education” as a sustainable development goal. Currently, 36% of social innovation organizations in Taiwan have made the 4th sustainable development goal of “quality education” their mission, becoming the most popular goal of all social innovation organizations in Taiwan.
In the face of societal expectations, this year Taiwan officially implemented a 12-year curriculum guided by “competencies.” In the past, students were assigned to specific academic subjects or departments, but the new curriculum for 6- to 18-year-olds emphasizes the cultivation of learners capable of “taking the initiative, engaging the public, seeking the common good.” This allows students to know what they wish to learn, while schools and teachers assist from the side-lines, so that the students eventually become “lifelong learners.” Children can design their own learning paths, become their own teachers, and discover their own passions and ambitions.
In Taiwan, online participation has become an important channel for the empowerment of children, and the government has established a foundation for the freedom of expression of children and youths through policy and education reforms. Through modern means of empowering young citizens to speak for themselves, Taiwan is revitalizing its democracy with greater civil rights for children in the digital world.