Taiwan has hundreds of thousands protesting China trade pact

Hundreds of thousands of student-led protesters dressed in black gathered along Ketagalan Boulevard in front of the Presidential Office in a protest over President Ma Ying-jeou and the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement.

Student activist Lin Fei-fan claimed over 500,000 people attended the rally, while protesters outside of the Legislative Yuan claimed that they numbered over 700,000 people. The National Police Agency (NPA), however, estimated the number of protesters to be 116,000.

While addressing the crowds at Ketagalan Boulevard, Lin said the demonstration yesterday was not an end but a start, noting that people should exchange contact information with the person standing next to them and arrange working rosters so people can take turn to go to the Legislative Yuan.

Lin said the reason why the protesters occupied the Legislative Yuan was because the administration has lost its legitimacy.

Lin reiterated the protesters’ four demands of the Ma administration:

1. Rejection of the Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement
2. Introduction of the Bill on Pacts between Taiwan and China — a draft bill proposed to supervise the signing of agreements with China
3. Urging the government to hold a “public constitutional meeting,”
4. Demanding all lawmakers listen and stand by people’s side.

Thousands of protesters rally on March 30, 2014 in Taipei, Taiwan. (Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images)

When Ma Ying-jeou was elected president in 2008, he hoped to regain some of Taiwan’s economic might by making closer ties to China a priority. For his party, the Kuomintang, or KMT, an improved relationship was the key to kick-starting the island’s economy.

But so far, that key has not ignited the engines of growth, despite a doubling of cross-strait trade since 2008, the establishment of direct flights, opening up of the tourism sector and a historic meeting of officials from the two sides earlier this year.

“Taiwan’s economy has been stagnant for a decade,” says Amy Chang, senior director of government and public affairs at the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. “It used to grow 7 percent; now it’s only 2 to 3 percent at best. And the talents are draining because people are hiring from Taiwan, going to Southeast Asia, going to China.”

Protesters say the controversial trade pact further undermines Taiwan’s economy. They say the island’s small companies will suffer as a result, and worry more broadly that Taiwan’s economic well-being will become ever more reliant on mainland China.

Taiwan’s economy is heavily dependent on exports, 40 percent of which go to China. Many observers say the best way for Taiwan to bolster its economic independence is to join regional trade groups like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or to seek more bilateral free-trade agreements like recent deals with New Zealand and Singapore.

The political piece is harder to solve.

Students protesting the trade pact are also angry at what they see as a threat to the island’s hard-won democracy: They say the ruling KMT completely steamrolled the political system, by reneging on a promise to allow a thorough review and debate of the terms of the deal, and sending it straight to the KMT-controlled Parliament for a vote.

Hundreds of university students are living at Taiwan’s parliament to block ratification of a trade agreement with China. The occupation has spiraled into mass protests at government offices and threatened Taiwan’s reputation as a trading partner along with the ruling party’s odds of holding power past the president’s term limit in 2016.

Forbes has three scenarios:

1. Police force everyone out

Members of Taiwan’s ruling Nationalist Party, which has a majority in parliament, are talking to their main opposition on how to ratify the trade pact. MPs are open to an item-by-item review, the cancellation of which incited a break-in that got the occupation started. That review could strike clauses hurtful to Taiwanese businesses, sending the agreement back to negotiators from Taipei and Beijing for another round of talks. The pact as signed in June would open 80 service sector categories in China and just 64 here – part of Beijing’s image management offensive aimed at political reunification with Taiwan someday.

A vote on the trade agreement would need a podium clear of protesters. Groups who back the trade agreement despite fears of getting too cozy with old enemy China have threatened a showdown today with students in parliament. Taiwan’s president told a visiting US scholar Monday that the occupation is illegal and uncool in a democratic society.

These pressures would prompt legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng to issue a get-out deadline and call police on protesters who defy the order to be martyrs (pronounced “media celebs”) for a cause. Batons would bring blood, but hospitals are ready after the violent ouster March 23 of protesters from the cabinet headquarters.

Odds: moderate

2. Students leave by attrition

Whether it’s the crush of midterm exams this month, fatigue from sleeping on cardboard mats or frustration for lack of protest results, the students anchoring today’s occupation may find things more rewarding outside parliament. About 700 protesters are there at any one time, some at the podium and others in doorways. That’s down from thousands in the occupation’s first week and more than 100,000 street demonstrators for the same cause on Sunday.

Maybe we get a dip during mid-month exams. But a zero headcount is unlikely. People fresh out of the exam room can replace those headed in. It takes just a few dozen to command parliament’s podium. Odds: low

3. Students relocate protest after deal with legislators

Protest leaders suddenly announce that (perhaps after exam season) they will move outside parliament to a venue that’s high profile but doesn’t obstruct government business. Unrelated protest groups already have long-term camps outside parliament. The students could set up another, though it wouldn’t equal the plush, weather-proof legislative assembly hall where some have even hired a massage service.

The relocation could follow a backroom deal between student protesters and legislators keen to shake off criticism from pro-trade pact people and law-and-order elements of the Nationalist Party leadership. Their handshake would save face for the students as they carry on the protest and for the legislators, who could get on with their agenda without being blamed for police clashes. Odds: moderate to high

SOURCES – China Post, Forbes, NPR

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