You may have missed this story, what with disappearing airliners, annexations in Crimea, and whatnot, but there has been a major and quite unique student uprising going on in Taipei over the past month.
The “Sunflower Student Movement” was born in mid-March when the Kuomintang government decided to try to ram a new trade treaty with China through the legislature, without permitting a clause-by-clause review or substantive public hearings. Since the KMT are known to favour (eventual) reunification with China, many in the opposition saw the reluctance to face any oversight as evidence of a potential sell-out. The result was a student-led occupation of Parliament for a little over three weeks, which eventually ended in a partial climbdown by the KMT.
Historically, this kind of student protest is pretty common. When you look at the phenomenon of student protests in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, what you mostly see are political movements. In South Korea, the dictatorship of Syngman Rhee was overthrown by students (the next military dictator prudently relocated Seoul National University across the river from the centre of government); in conjunction with the military, students did similar things in Bolivia, South Vietnam, Sudan, and Ghana. Even in the developed world, student movements of the 60s had broad political aims – protesting the war in America, for social revolution in France, and for the “nationalist” cause in Quebec.
However, something very strange has happened to student politics over the past thirty years. During this time, as higher education massified, student movements and organizations became less political. Today, these movements have become much more concerned with “student” issues, such as student welfare, tuition fees, etc (in the literature, these are known as “etudialist” issues).
Back in the 60s, when big names in Political Science like Seymour Martin Lipset thought it worth their time to edit books on student politics, this would have seemed unlikely. The expansion of educational opportunity to poorer students was widely seen as being likely to further radicalize the student body. Yet, in fact, what massification seems mostly to have done is to make the student body more like the world at large: big, diverse, and anything but homogeneous in political thought. And while that makes them less likely to be vanguards for social or political revolutions, it doesn’t preclude them from uniting to fight defensive battles when they feel their interests are threatened (for example, on tuition fees).
Thus, most of the really large student protest movements in the past three years – Chile, South Korea, and Quebec – have all fundamentally been about fees. Conversely, while there have been some enormous social and political protests in places like Cairo, Kiev, and Athens, students have rarely played the leading roles that their counterparts did 40-50 years ago. Only in Taiwan and – to a lesser extent – Venezuela, where student groups have been at the forefront of protests against the chavista government of Nicolas Maduro, have we seen students in the kinds of political confrontations that were the norm only half a century ago.