Ma now has to defuse tensions after students occupied the legislature in Taipei to protest his latest proposal, a deal with Beijing to open Taiwan’s services industries to Chinese competition and investment. The Sunflower Movement is striking a nerve. A huge crowd (estimated by police at more than 100,000 and by organizers at over 300,000) marched on the president’s office on March 30.
South Korea is pursuing its own trade pact with China. “Korea is aggressively negotiating and not waiting,” says Marcella Chow, Taiwan economist for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. If Ma’s deal with China remains stuck in the legislature, “it sends signals to other countries that Taiwan is not willing to open its market.” She adds that if South Korea can ink liberalization deals with China, which Taiwan can’t match, multinationals might be more likely to invest in South Korea than Taiwan.
Ma’s critics fear that a pact with China will make Taiwan even more vulnerable to pressure from the mainland to unify on terms that would jeopardize the island’s democracy. With the ruling Kuomintang holding a majority in the legislature, the president might still be able to force through the services pact. Yet the current deal is “not that important,” says Chow. “The most important is the trade-in-goods agreement afterwards.” This is a far more ambitious pact that would reduce tariffs and enable Taiwanese exporters to sell made-in-Taiwan products in the mainland more easily. It would also end protection for Taiwanese farmers by opening the island to food imports from the mainland. Even before the demonstrations, the trade-in-goods agreement was a sensitive subject for both opponents and supporters of closer ties with China.
Implications for Hong Kong
Lin Chi-hua, an academic at Soochow University who has studied political change in Hong Kong since the handover, said direct action could alienate public opinion and be counterproductive.
“The two places are at different stages of democratic development. Taiwan has gone through many waves of democratic movements and many people are determined to clash with the government,” said Lin.
“Hong Kong is also going through social changes, but social changes can’t be hurried. If a crowd storms into the Legco, would people consider it legitimate to do so?
“Is what is effective in Taiwan also effective in Hong Kong? There’s a big question mark.”
Lin is in contact with pan-democrat groups in Hong Kong and told them the key was avoiding the use of force.
Is this the start of an Asian Spring ?
Will the protests in Taiwan eventually lead to the fall of President Ma and the KMT ? Will this lead to attempts to achieve true democracy in Taiwan and other Asian countries ?
So far the Taiwanese protestors are keeping to the trade deal and relations with China.