Part of a continuing series, Lighthouse: Dispatches on Taiwanese Democracywhere we explore how democracy has deepened its roots on this island nation.


Dispatch #6: Taiwanese form non-political social movements to make sustainable change

In the last dispatch, we focused on how everyday citizens in Taiwan have come together to in new, self-made political groupings to generate a profound evolution in the political system. Today, we explore how that same spirit of activism empowers civil society more broadly.

Outside of politics, new strategies for precipitating social good have emerged across Taiwan, engaging everyday workers and dedicated activists, as well as idealistic youth and fired-up senior citizens. Crucially, many of these channels are of their own making.

People are interested in ways to change the world outside of politics: through social entrepreneurship, issue-based activism, or volunteering in the local community. These activities are not explicitly political, but are civic in nature.

As political sociologists Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba have noted, while political engagement is necessary for a functioning democratic society, communities cannot have too much participation in politics, or else life become too polarized. People must also have healthy engagements with other organizations, issues, clubs, and interests—the stuff of everyday life—to form a stable “civic culture.”

This grassroots “civic culture” is what Taiwan increasingly has, in many domains. There are youth environmental movements, such as the Taiwan Youth for Climate Change Coalition (TWYCC), which unites green activists from the island’s top universities; the International Climate Development Institute (ICDI), a think tank for climate scholars; and even groups celebrating the island’s lively bicycle culture.

There is a burgeoning “design thinking” and maker movement—Taipei served as the 2016 World Design Capital—while LGBTQ activism is also expanding. Taiwan hosts Asia’s largest gay pride parade and LGBTQ people enjoy a relatively tolerant atmosphere, in spite of traditional Confucian mores. Same-sex couples can now register their relationships in major municipalities, and despite occasional pushback from the religious right, a decided majority of the Taiwanese public supports gay marriage, which looks to be on the agenda for the new parliament.

These newcomers join a pantheon of flourishing civil society movements with long histories of social engagement, such as the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation, an avowedly non-political humanitarian organization that has spearheaded major improvements in society through rapid disaster response, compassionate social action, and innovative recycling centers. The group’s reach has gone global, with offices in over 40 countries and volunteers in many more.

Opportunities for spiritual growth have also expanded through the activities of the Dharma Drum Mountain and Buddha’s Light organizations—who along with Tzu Chi form the island’s three major Buddhist groups.

Civil society in Taiwan is particularly vibrant, empowering social change outside of the political arena. A thriving democracy requires citizens who focus not just on political contests, but on the nature of everyday society. They are the individuals and collectives that take direct action to improve people’s livelihoods and lives.

Kevin Hsu

Kevin Fan Hsu is Lecturer in Urban Studies at Stanford University and co-founder of the Human Cities Initiative. He crafts open online courses and designs other educational experiences with a social mission at Skyship Design (