Taiwan’s ‘sunflowers’ bloom

With most international attention focused on events in Ukraine and Crimea, relatively little attention has been given to mass protests in Taiwan. A student-led movement has occupied the government’s legislature and taken to the streets to demonstrate against a cross-strait trade agreement that is the centerpiece of President Ma Ying-jeou’s political and economic agenda.

The protests draw on the uneasiness felt throughout Taiwan brought about by the increasingly tight cross-strait economic relationship. Ma must address that unease, but he should not do so in a way that sends the wrong signal about extraparliamentary activity. Taiwan has a working democracy. Indeed that is one of the island’s greatest accomplishments. Its processes must be respected.

Since Ma was first elected president in 2008, the cornerstone of his platform was strengthening the faltering Taiwan economy, and to do that he sought to build a stronger economic relationship with the mainland.

While the business community supported that approach, the idea was controversial for many Taiwanese who worried about China gaining increasing influence and leverage over Taiwan. Independence-minded activists in Taiwan bitterly opposed the proposal, and feared that it was a subterfuge that would ultimately undermine Taiwan’s independence (de facto, not de jure). In the zero-sum atmosphere of Taiwanese politics, this demanded complete opposition to the Ma agenda, and to greater cross-strait linkages in particular.

Undaunted, the Ma government concluded an Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with Beijing in 2010. Subsequently the two governments agreed on a Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which was signed in Shanghai in June 2013 and opens 80 of China’s service sectors to Taiwan and 64 Taiwanese sectors to China, among them banking and finance.

Given the intense disagreements surrounding the services trade pact and Ma’s plummeting popularity — last year, his support rate plunged to 9 percent in opinion polls — he agreed to a clause-by-clause review of the deal in Taiwan’s legislature, known as the Legislative Yuan (LY).

Last month, however, legislators from Ma’s party, the Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), grew frustrated over the slow pace of the review process and forced the deal out of committee in hopes of winning quick approval. That triggered student protests, which resulted in the occupation of the LY. Several days later, the protesters occupied the executive offices of the government, the first time that has happened in Taiwanese history. That prompted the police to forcibly evict them; more than 150 people were reported injured in the melee.

Occupation of the LY continues. A rally held by protesters, who dub themselves the Sunflower Movement, drew 100,000 (police estimate) to 500,000 people (organizer estimate), who called on the government to withdraw the agreement and to create some form of legislative oversight to ensure that future deals do not jeopardize Taiwan’s “independence.”

The Ma government refuses, insisting that the island’s international credibility would be damaged if the government cannot guarantee that the trade deals it signs will be honored. The government has said, however, that it will create a task force to assess the prospects for a meeting of all civic groups. The protesters have no desire to talk with the president himself, convinced that he does not take their complaints seriously.

The depth of unease felt by many Taiwanese as a result of the strengthening of cross-strait ties cannot be ignored. Many Taiwanese genuinely fear for the future of their island and worry that the cross-strait deals are exchanging Taiwan’s status for economic growth (and the stature Ma will win if he gets his long cherished meeting with China’s leadership.)

Ma may hold the presidency and his party has a majority in the LY, but effective democracy is built upon compromise. Tyranny of the majority is still a form of authoritarianism.

The protesters too must be prepared to compromise, however. The KMT claims that it was forced to abrogate the deal regarding the review of the CSSTA because the opposition in the LY was not acting in good faith either. Rather than an honest review of the services trade agreement, opposition members were stalling and blocking any progress.

The speed with which the students occupied the LY after the KMT pushed the bill through the committee has led some to believe that opposition members were working with the protest leaders from the start, challenging that idea that this was a “grass-roots” protest. Such behavior is all too common in the zero-sum, take-no-prisoners mentality that dominates Taiwan politics.

Both sides must take a step back. Ma and the KMT should offer again a review of the services trade agreement, and the opposition must respond with a commitment to review it in good faith. Both sides must reaffirm their commitment to parliamentary democracy and ensure that disputes are resolved at the ballot box and in the formal processes of government.

Neither side should engage in obstructionism nor encourage its followers to resort to extraparliamentary activity. Taiwan’s democracy is its greatest achievement and the best guarantor of its status in the world.