TAIWANESE students have flocked to the streets to protest a recently passed trade agreement.
While Chinese President, Xi Jinping, faced little resistance at home or abroad over a trade agreement with Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou found himself unable to ignore the Taiwanese students. For the first time in a long time, they are voicing their anger and dissatisfaction with the government through massive demonstrations. On a weekend afternoon that would normally see Taipei residents stare at assorted cute paper pandas on Liberty Square (as some still did), the real action was happening just a block away. In the centre of the city, a large group of students continued an unprecedented occupation of the national parliament which had been going on for more than two weeks.
Friday evening, when young people usually fill neon-lit shopping streets, the stores appeared empty as young people flooded the streets surrounding the parliament for the eleventh day in a row, that prolonged a sit-in that has effectively deterred police from entering and clearing the parliament. As various professors from Taipei universities were lecturing in the streets, flood lights illuminated streamers and banners suspended from the broken windows and doors through which protesters entered parliament and supplied the protesters. No end to the siege was in sight. Sunday marked a milestone in the protest when at least a hundred thousand Taiwanese, more according to other sources, filled the avenues around the presidential office in a mass demonstration nothing short of spectacular.
“Revoke the treaty! Safeguard democracy! Scrutinise legislation! Oppose the black box!” the protesters chanted as they carried the symbol of the Sunflower Movement. Outside of Taiwan, there is still considerable confusion as to what this movement is about.
A special situation
Many foreign publications have dryly remarked that China quite openly aspires to appropriate the island state that itself and until very recently claimed to ‘own’ China. This fact alone should make any agreement with China problematic. The first significant trade deal in 2010 famously sparked a physical fight in parliament in which at least one legislator was hit with a clock and transported to a local hospital.
Some people in Taiwan, as well as some abroad, see any rapprochement between the countries leading to unification, such as Xunyu, 25, who has been helping out as staff at the protest for almost two weeks now: “We are Taiwanese, not Chinese. I would always oppose an agreement.”
However, Xunyu represents only a minority. The focus on China and Taiwan’s relations hides the fact that, in reality (predominantly for domestic reasons) these protests have spun out of control, and authorities have been very hesitant to react and use force. A poll by Taiwanese magazine Business Weekly shows more than 50 per cent of respondents are against the treaty. In fact, most people are not simply opposed to trade agreements with China, they are opposed to what they call the ‘black box’, or the opaqueness of Taiwanese politics and the undemocratic way the Nationalist Party (KMT) decided to ratify the treaty in “less than 30 seconds”, as the protesters claim.
For Xiaoyun, 19, this is her first protest. She is camping in the open air against the barbed wire of the barricades with her boyfriend Youwei, also 19, who is doing homework as required by the protests’ leaders so students do not get behind on their education. Like many, Xiaoyun still lives with her parents, who now discuss politics at home and support her. “Everything is a black box,” she says. “Yes, I fear China, but I am actually really worried about the way this has been pushed through.”
At the beginning of the process, ruling party KMT promised to review every clause of the agreement in cooperation with the opposition Democratic People’s Party (DPP). When instead the KMT decided to promptly withdraw from the talks and pass the agreement in a hurried vote, many people felt betrayed. “The government never explained anything well to the people and has only insisted on the good points,” says Ziyan, 25, who works at the smartphone producer HTC. Her colleague Cheying, 25, thinks that she would “surely benefit from the treaty,” but that this not the point. “What we want is procedural democracy,” she says. “I want them to protect small business and vulnerable people better,” adds Ziyan.
The protesters demands include: special regulations for the ratification of future treaties, that the treaty will be revoked and modified to better protect vulnerable people and industries, and lastly constitutional reform.
This last complaint is especially sensitive in Taiwanese society, as President Ma Ying-jeou appears to be acting on China’s behalf, which is perceived as a service to the enemy power. His approval rating has been extremely low for a long time, and ‘Ma 9%’, as the nickname goes, is speculated to be targeting history books rather than news reports in desperate search of accomplishment. The president is an important political force in Taiwan, and many blame him personally for not explaining the treaty, showing instead a defensive attitude that leaves little hope for a compromise.
More than a student movement
Originally a radical student movement for Taiwanese measures has evolved into protesters breaking into the parliament and turning it upside down. They have garnered support from diverse sections of society, in a country still heavily influenced by Confucian deference and not accustomed to violence. Most of them admit that at least one parent actively supports their cause. Tsang-chiang, DPP councillor on Kinmen Island, less than two kilometres off the Chinese coast, has flown in with his two children just to join the protest. Many appear to understand that the issues at hand matter especially to the young, who are concerned about becoming part of China one day.
Currently, Taiwanese students graduate into the labour market of an ageing society where low economic growth has meant stagnating wages, while prices have increased and housing property is increasingly hard to obtain for newcomers. While promising much-needed economic growth, the current agreement threatens to make property values jump, as mainland Chinese would be able to buy apartments in Taiwan. According to many observers this would help investment banks and real estate sectors, while exposing vulnerable industries to Chinese competition and influence. Many Taiwanese fear that their country, which has excellent, though hard to finance collective health insurance and other social policies, will become a more unequal society.
Politics at play
The case of the Taiwanese trade agreement is a classic example of far reaching policies that are negotiated in the twilight zone of international diplomacy rather than in the arena of national politics. Taiwanese citizens feel vulnerable in negotiating an agreement with an economic giant like China without any backup of a larger trade block, such as the EU or ASEAN.
The Taiwanese black box may not be opened any time soon, but protesters like Alice are not easily discouraged in their newly found political engagement: “I don’t think our government is afraid of anything any more. They know this is just a very temporary outburst of people. But even though I know things might not change, I still want to stand up.”
By Shir Bashi, Sofia Lotto Persio
Pictures: Paul Chang (Anti-Chen protest), Planet Observer (China and Taiwan satellite image), Jimmy Tseng (Protesters scaling parliament), Y.J. Wang (Female protesters with banners).