Manning the trade barriers
Students occupy Taiwan’s legislature in protest against a free-trade pact with China
TAIWAN’S Legislative Yuan, the island’s parliament, is used to rumbustious scenes. But the occupation since March 18th of its main chamber by protesting students is unprecedented in the country’s nearly two decades of full democracy. The demonstrators, whose actions took many by surprise, want the government to scrap an agreement with China that would allow freer trade in services across the Taiwan Strait. They have displayed a large cartoon of President Ma Ying-jeou in the debating hall, portraying him as a Chinese pawn. The president is at the nadir of his popularity, while China struggles to win over public opinion in Taiwan. Signs of public sympathy with the students are growing.
The past few months have been particularly tough for Mr Ma, now nearly halfway through his second and final four-year term as president. In September he tried to expel a political rival in the ruling Kuomintang (KMT), Wang Jin-pyng, the legislature’s speaker, for alleged influence-peddling. But the move only served to highlight disunity within his party. On March 19th, a day after the students stormed into the legislature, a court in Taipei ruled in Mr Wang’s favour, allowing him to keep his party membership and thus his job. It was another embarrassment for the president, whom critics attempt to portray as an aloof patrician with an autocratic streak.
The agreement his government reached with China last June on removing barriers to cross-strait trade in services such as banking, e-commerce and health care is at the heart of many of Mr Ma’s image problems. Mr Ma sees the pact as a reward for the more conciliatory approach to China that he has adopted since he became president. The students occupying the legislature, as well as opposition parties who back them, claim that the trade deal will lead to an influx of Chinese businesses that will overwhelm Taiwanese competitors, threaten basic freedoms in areas such as publishing, and employ cheap mainland labour rather than Taiwanese. They accuse Mr Ma’s government of being overly secretive in negotiating its terms.
Three days after the students began their occupation, Mr Ma argued that failure by the legislature to approve the agreement “could have serious consequences” (see Banyan). Going back on the deal, he said, could result in Taiwan being “regarded as an unreliable trade partner” by China as well other countries with which the island wants to negotiate free-trade pacts. He denied the agreement would open Taiwan’s job market to Chinese workers and said the government would reimpose barriers if national security were ever at risk.
These arguments appear to convince neither the students nor many members of the public. Thousands have shown support for the occupation by rallying outside the building. A poll conducted on March 20th-21st by TVBS, a broadcaster often regarded as sympathetic to the KMT, found that nearly half of respondents supported the students’ action and opposed the trade pact. Only a fifth were in favour of the deal.
On March 23rd hundreds of students broke into the Taipei compound of the central government, and some used ladders to enter the offices. Police evicted them a few hours later using water cannon and batons in an operation that left dozens injured. Another TVBS poll found much less public support for this action by the students, though support for the continuing occupation of parliament remained high.
In parts of Asia students are seen to embody a country’s moral conscience. Mr Ma is careful not to condemn them outright.
China, meanwhile, tries to sound unperturbed by the commotion in Taipei. Global Times, a Beijing newspaper, called the student action a “typical piece of theatre”. Mr Ma, however, acknowledges that the problem is bigger. “Domestically,“ he says, “we have not yet reached a significant consensus on how we want to develop our relations with mainland China.” After six years of trying, Mr Ma can claim too little progress on this.
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