This article is a follow up to a previous article on the occupation of the Taiwanese legislature.
The occupation of the legislature in Taipei by Taiwanese students has come to an end after more than 24 days of continual protest and intense political maneuvering on the part of both the protesters and the government. Though the issues at hand have been kicked temporarily down the road , the dynamic and unprecedented events of the past six weeks will no doubt affect the political trajectory of Taiwan and the East Asian region for years to come.
Taiwanese student protesters forced their way into the legislative Yuan in Taipei on March 18 to protest a controversial trade agreement with mainland China. The agreement, called the “Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement,” was signed between representatives of the Taiwanese and mainland Chinese governments in Shanghai in June 2013. The agreement was controversial in Taiwan from the outset, with many, especially the younger generation, fearing that closer economic integration with the mainland would disadvantage the Taiwanese economically and put Taiwan’s democratic political system in danger of being undermined by politicians in Beijing.
Mainland China views Taiwan as a breakaway province and has made clear its intention to integrate the island into its sphere of influence, using force if necessary. Despite a recent improvement in relations between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, many Taiwanese remain distrustful of mainland China.
The leaders and students participating in the occupation, now called the “Sunflower Student Movement,” decided on April 7 that their controversial occupation of the parliament would end, effective April 10. Political issues surrounding the protests, however, are far from resolved. In making the decision to vacate the legislature, protest leaders made clear that the decision was the result of a shift in strategy, not a change in goals. When first occupying the legislature, they had made it clear that their goals were twofold. First, they intended to force the government to withdraw or severely modify the trade pact with mainland China. Second, they wanted all future deals with Beijing to be put under close scrutiny by a supervisory body that would determine if and how the deals would compromise Taiwan’s political system, economic strength and national security.
Republic of China (Taiwan) President Ma Ying-Jeou had made clear that while a future mechanism for reviewing cross-strait agreements would be considered in the future, the Service Trade Agreement could not be negotiated, and had to be accepted as-is. However, Wang Jin-Ping, the legislative speaker, had promised to delay ratification of the pact until a clear review process was decided on. Therefore, the students decided that enough of their demands had been met to justify ending the protests in the Yuan, although they have promised future demonstrations of a more traditional nature in the future.
Connecticut College Professor of Government and International Relations John Tian, author of Government, Business, and the Politics of Interdependence and Conflict across the Taiwan Strait, has studied the development of economic and political interaction between Taiwan and mainland China. He attributes the protests to a failed “psychological adjustment to a new reality,” in which Taiwan, once an economic powerhouse of the Asia-Pacific region, is now falling behind rivals like Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea. In his opinion, economic integration is inevitable amongst a worldwide movement towards globalized markets. Even without the passage of a trade pact, Tian believes, Taiwan will still likely become more and more politically and economically dependent on mainland China. The new pact, he said, is an inevitable result of global economic movement that will have to be passed eventually if Taiwan is to remain competitive in the global market.
Nevertheless, many Taiwanese remain deeply skeptical about the effects of the trade pact on their way of life. The trade pact has an expected positive contribution to GDP of just 0.03% over ten years, and would involve an influx of mainland media and capital that some fear would serve to slowly force Taiwan to come under the control of the mainland government. Many in Taiwan are deeply concerned that along with this reintegration will come an eventual erosion of the civil liberties and rights Taiwanese have gained over decades of struggle and civil action.
The date the protesters vacated the legislature, April 10, was chosen because 35 years ago on that day the United States enacted the Taiwan Relations Act, which suggested – but did not guarantee – that the United States would come to Taiwan’s aid in the case of invasion by the mainland Chinese government. As tensions increase between the two sides, many in the United States have watched warily, fearing that the “Taiwan Issue” could damage relations between the world two largest economies, and its impact on the uncertain future of Taiwan. Views on the pact and the protests are still in flux, with both being found controversial and undemocratic by certain sectors of Taiwanese society. Municipal elections, scheduled for November, will give the Taiwanese people a chance to voice their opinions on both issues. Until then, it may be impossible to say if it was the government or the protesters who won this latest round of political upheaval in Taiwan. •