TAIPEI -- A 26-year-old graduate student is widely considered the spokesman for Taiwan's under-30 set, a generation struggling amid poor job prospects, stagnant wages and rising economic inequality.
Lin Fei-fan is also one of the island's brightest political stars, thanks to his strong anti-China stance. He may well go on to influence cross-strait relations and even the democratic movement in Hong Kong, though he has not said whether he plans to run for public office. He is, however, supporting his controversial fellow activist Chen Wei-ting in his bid to run in a legislative by-election. Chen has told a newspaper that he once received a suspended indictment for sexual harassment and therapy for related issues.
Nicknamed God Fan by his supporters, Lin made his name as a frontman of the Sunflower Movement, a mass anti-Beijing rally that started in late March and saw a group of students occupy the island's legislative chamber for three weeks. The students were protesting the Nationalist government's efforts to push through a services trade deal with China.
A movement speaks
At the end of November, voters kept the momentum going by dealing the ruling Nationalists a debilitating loss in mayoral elections across the island. The party secured only six of the 22 posts up for grabs, and its prospects for the 2016 presidential race now look shaky at best.
"The election results reflected Taiwanese voters' unhappiness with the government's over-reliance on China over the past six years," Lin said, "and its tendency to help only the privileged few to reap financial rewards from closer cross-strait economic ties. This is a vote of no confidence in the government of President Ma Ying-jeou."
Ma has been in power and steering Taiwan closer to the mainland since 2008.
The Sunflower movement and the election results reflect growing public unease with Ma's direction. While the president has claimed his mainland initiatives are necessary for Taiwan's economic survival, many now think the 21 pacts he has signed with Beijing have benefited only big conglomerates, while hurting small businesses and undermining the island's de facto sovereignty.
The widespread fear of China gaining sway in Taiwan largely stems from Beijing's refusal to abandon its claim on the island, even though it has been 65 years since the two sides split in a civil war.
A similar anxiety has spread to Hong Kong, where residents are growing frustrated with rocketing home prices and shortages of daily necessities due to Chinese investors, immigrants, and visitors flooding into the city. The discontent bubbled to the surface in late September, when protesters swamped several commercial areas, clamoring for transparent elections and less interference from Beijing. The Hong Kong protesters remained in the streets for months despite sometimes violent scuffles with police and other groups.
"If China doesn't abandon its goal to have complete control of Taiwan and Hong Kong," Lin said, "it will only lead to more conflicts. Taiwan's civil society has gradually formed a consensus that we can no longer tolerate China's approach."
Lin added that activists in Taiwan and Hong Kong keep in touch and learn from each other's experiences.
The Sunflower generation has broken away from traditional party politics. It wields social media to plan rallies and policy debates. It rejects Washington's game plan for the region.
"The U.S.'s one-China policy has hurt Taiwan significantly, allowing China to exert increasing influence over Taiwan," Lin said, referring to Washington acknowledging China's claim over Taiwan while not endorsing Beijing's attempted control of the island. "The U.S. should understand that the collective consensus of civil society in Taiwan is that we want to decide our own future instead of being controlled by the U.S. and China. The U.S. should adjust its policy accordingly."
Lin comes from a prosperous family; his father owns a dried-fruit business. He is enrolled in a master's degree program in politics at the prestigious National Taiwan University. He is savvy and wields ambiguity like a first-rate politician. Ask him if he and his fellow activists might form a new party and he parries the question. Press him again and he laughs apologetically: "We are still discussing the issue. That is as much as I can say for now."