When 16-year-old Chen Hui-jie was asked to run the election campaign of a candidate for city council, she was sure it was not her thing.
Although not shy about trying new opportunities, she told her future boss she was too young to vote and had few contacts in Taiwan’s third largest municipality.
The bigger problem was that, like most Taiwanese teenagers, she had no interest in politics. In fact, most young people here resent the political class and do not believe that government has much to do with their lives. For them, politics is a dirty business.
Yet Hui-jie was impressed by the ideals of Ye Chun-hsing, a pastor’s wife and former schoolteacher who is running for public office for the first time and offering voters a fresh alternative to politics as usual.
Hui-jie took on the challenge.
With more than 11,000 local government posts to be chosen in free elections in late November, Taiwan has been in the midst of one of the largest exercises in grass-roots democracy in East Asia. The voters will choose officials for nine levels of government in the equivalent of a mid-term election before the island republic’s presidential and legislative races in 2016.
Who controls the municipalities, country magistrates, and local council could make a crucial difference when candidates begin their presidential campaigns next year.
Also making a difference could be the younger generation of voters. Hui-jie’s job has been to reach these voters and transform their indifference and cynicism about government into a force for change.
It’s about claiming their future.
After five months on the job, she finds the work exhilarating. “I’ve discovered that politics is a way of doing good things that influences many people,” she said in a burst of words that allowed few doubts about the possibilities ahead.
Political activism among teenagers is unusual in Taiwan. University students may rally in moments of crisis, such as the protesters that occupied Taiwan’s legislature for more than three weeks earlier this year to block the passage of an unpopular trade agreement with China.
Known as the “sunflower movement,” the group was an exceptional instance of civic action that has thwarted the government’s rush to integrate Taiwan’s economy with China’s.
Most people Hui-jie’s age, however, remain stubbornly apolitical and ignore the thousands of candidates in Taiwan now clamoring for attention in the streets and popular media.
Her path from indifference to activism began with community service work nearly a decade ago. Inspired by missionary parents, she is described by her father as someone who has been determined to “get things done” from an early age.
Already an activist at age 8
“We encourage her to try whatever she wants, but we never thought she could do such things as this,” says Chen Po-chieh of his daughter’s leap into politics.
As an 8-year-old, Hui-jie helped her family deliver meals to homebound senior citizens in Ilan County, on Taiwan’s north coast, where her parents and three sisters now live after returning from missionary work in Central America. Every summer since then, she has raised money at street concerts and shopping malls for children’s causes and organized hundreds of middle school students to fast for charity.
Last year, she was one of two students from Taiwan to receive the Prudential Spirit of Community Award at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Hui-jie is also in demand as a motivational speaker for Taiwan’s Millennial generation, a group often described as fragile personalities without ambition or purpose in their lives. She shares her fearless goodwill and dedication to community service with audiences at public schools and universities island-wide.
After one of her talks at the National Taiwan Sport University last year, a student was inspired to launch his own charity event. He walked around the island of Taiwan barefoot – more than 500 miles – to raise money for children who need shoes.
Friends say it helps that Hui-jie has been homeschooled, along with her sisters. Her life outside the mainstream of Taiwan’s rigid educational system has given her more freedom to pursue outside interests, they say.
While her peers are cramming for college-entrance exams, for example, she is supervising a group of adults working to elect an independent candidate to the Taichung City Council. It’s been a crash course in community organizing.
Candidate Ye has raised two children of her own and finds the energy and networking skills of a well-organized teenager a good match for her own aspirations of helping others through public service.
“I felt God wanted her to help me,” Ye said, recalling her weeks of wrestling over the decision to run for office. “The younger generation are not involved in politics and need our encouragement.”
Hui-jie has said that a Bible verse inspires her work: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
For both candidate and manager, the election campaign has been the biggest challenge of their lives. “We have no money, so it’s been an unconventional campaign,” Hui-jie explains. Enthusiasm and flair substitute for the lack of funds.
One of their goals is to knock multiple times on the door of every household in their inner-city district, which has more than 150,000 voters who live in apartment blocks and off narrow alleys. The alleys are often too narrow for their campaign truck, so volunteers ride their bicycles, mounted with speakers, to navigate the tiny streets.
Volunteers also pass out fliers and wave signs promoting Ye’s campaign theme of “gentle power” – dignity for women, fulfillment of women’s rights, hope for youths, advancing education, and giving priority to home life.
With few funds, the campaign is sustained by friends and supporters in other ways. A church group has donated its worship space in the basement of an office building for Ye’s campaign office; the congregation has moved temporarily to another location. Artists have donated dozens of paintings to be auctioned off, and musicians have traveled from Taipei to donate their services for free street concerts.
Meanwhile, breaking through the partisanship and money interests of political parties is daunting. There are many competing voices in a district where six candidates are vying for three seats. Like other cities in Taiwan, Taichung is festooned with garish billboards for candidates standing for mayor and the 63-member city council.
‘We can help them with love’
True independents like Ye, without a party affiliation, are rare. But voters may be ready for change: They are deeply dissatisfied with their government and incumbents are on the defensive. How Taichung voters will respond to a campaign focused on the needs of women and youth and run by an upstart teenager will be decided Nov. 29.
Meanwhile, Hui-jie is hearing every day what voters want from their elected officials.
“People have so many needs, and we can help them with love,” she says, echoing her candidate’s views and sounding as if politics may be her thing after all.
[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated Ms. Chen's age.]
How to take action
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