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Asian Youth's Fervor for Politics Fading


Sixteen years since Chinese students swarmed Beijing's Tiananmen Square demanding political reform, the fervor among Asia's youth to bring about change has died down. As part of a VOA series examining youth and politics around the world, Kate Dawson tells us about the transformation of Asian youth's involvement in politics.

It is a summer's evening in downtown Beijing, and young Chinese are packing a club to party.

The scene is a far cry from 1989, when Chinese students flooded Beijing's Tiananmen Square to demand political reforms.

Twenty-two-year-old Nicole, one of the partiers, says a lot has changed since the events in Tiananmen riveted the world. "All the young people now are totally different," she said. "They are very Western-like, they are really open, they go to a lot of parties. It is better than before."

Well into the 1990's, the young were a powerful force for change in Asia. In the turbulent 1980's, South Korean students regularly battled security forces in demonstrations that helped bring democracy in the country. Hundreds died in 1980 when government forces dispersed protesters in the city of Kwangju.

In Burma, students agitated for elections in their military-ruled country. They succeeded in 1990, but the military refused to recognize the election results. The students were arrested or forced into exile. And the Tiananmen protests ended in bloodshed. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters, most of them students, were killed by Chinese troops.

Today, Asia's young adults are more often found in malls, bars and cafes, talking about jobs, relationships and movies, than in street protests.

Kim Ah-ram, a 21-year old business student in South Korea, says people are more interested in jobs and other personal matters than in social issues or politics.

Political analysts say the values of today's young Asians reflect the region's own transformation. Youthful activism arose from anger over rigid or repressive governments. But as Asia has developed and personal freedoms have increased, the lure of politics diminished.

In China, economic development has ushered in opportunities that were almost inconceivable in 1989. The Chinese can now travel abroad, chose jobs in the private sector, start their own businesses, buy their own cars.

"The Chinese youth today are more pragmatic than the youth in the '80s," said Chan Che-po, a political science professor at Lingnan College in Hong Kong. "They first consider about themselves, their own benefit, their own career future. I will not say they [do] not value the idea of liberty or political freedom. But I don't think, for example, going after popular elections is such an important thing for Chinese youth."

The failure of reform efforts in China and Burma also discouraged the re-emergence of political activism. Corruption and ineffective older politicians have turned the young away.

Bam Aquino, chairman of the Philippine National Youth Commission, says young Filipinos have grown tired of bickering among their leaders. They are frustrated by the politicians' failure to bring about economic growth 19 years after the street protests that ended two decades of the Marcos dictatorship.

"A lot of young people tend to not get involved [in politics]. They see it as really dirty…. It's a matter of young people not seeing role models in the leaders that they are exposed to," said Mr. Aquino. "It's also a matter of the previous generation not being able to live up to promises."

Instead of following generations before them who took to the streets, some young people are taking a more mainstream approach to bring change.

Twenty-seven-year-old Rajendra Mulmi founded the Youth Initiative in Kathmandu, to increase social and political awareness among Nepalese youth.

"We do a lot of debates, political discussions and sometimes we also organize programs on skill development like parliamentary procedures, strategic planning," she said. "We are trying to bring young people who are apathetic toward politics so that they start to be concerned."

Elsewhere in Asia, political parties recruit students to groom them for leadership roles. And a number of grassroots organizations with goals ranging from combating drug abuse to promoting religious tolerance enlist young people to promote their programs.

Mr. Aquino with the Philippine National Youth Commission thinks that involving young people in community development is a better way to build political awareness than protests.

"They all want change…. So it's a matter of redirecting their energies toward volunteer work, helping their communities, building schools, getting involved in different areas," he added. "It is much clearer now that the future that we want for ourselves has to happen with young people getting involved where they are - in the villages, in the communities."

Some youth leaders are optimistic that Asia's younger generation will once again be a powerful catalyst for change. But the challenge, they say, is in keeping young adults motivated and regaining their trust in the political institutions that they inevitably will have to lead.

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