Noted political dissident Su Beng sits in a wheelchair listening to speeches at an anti-government protest over a proposed trade pact between China and Taiwan. Demotix/Craig Ferguson. All rights reserved.
As the French are known for their strikes, the Taiwanese deserve to be known for their high-profile political protests. Imagine an occupation of the UK Parliament or US Congress! But the recent invasion of the legislative chambers in Taiwan and its prolonged occupation is only one step up from previous protests.
On Tuesday 18 March 200 protesters broke through the fences of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s legislative body, and occupied the legislative chambers. Student activists barricaded the doors with chairs and are planning to stay put until Friday. Outside of the Legislative Yuan, a mass of 2,250 protesters has gathered in support of the protesters. On Thursday, 20 March the opposing DPP party gave the president an ultimatum. At the same time, the KMT politicians indicated that it will send in police to clear the legislative floor tonight.
The protests started after President Ma Ying-jeou (Ma) announced a cross-strait service trade pact with China, a follow-up to the Economic Co-operation Framework 2010, which opens up 80 areas of service industry to the Chinese.
Promises that the trade pact would undergo parliamentary scrutiny and review on a clause-by-clause basis were ignored. Instead the president relied on a law that any cross-strait agreement which does not contradict a domestic law can be passed by the executive and does not need to be reviewed by the legislators - the rationale being that any domestic law substantially affecting Taiwanese citizens would therefore be captured by this requirement. This loophole has allowed Ma to push through a piece of legislation that should have been captured by this requirement.
He has warmed up to China during his presidency and has often been criticised for these pro-China policies. As China has becoming a stronger economic player, and Taiwan has been losing ground as the economically dominant role in the equation, anti-China sentiments have been growing among the Taiwanese population. Ever since President Ma signed the Economic Cooperation Framework in 2010, Taiwanese citizens have feared that Taiwan will be tied too closely to China, which still maintains that Taiwan is a special province of China.
The undemocratic passing of the trade pact is seen by many as yet another example of the current nationalist KMT government’s deaf ear to the voice of the people. Cartoons shared on social media depict a horse with Ma's head (the President’s surname means ‘horse’) and excrement coming out of its ears, stating, “I cannot hear the voice of the people” (人民 的聲音，我聽不到哦).
Even if the president gives in to the protests and allows for full scrutiny of the trade pact, it would not address the underlying issues. This could be the last straw that broke the camel’s back. Ever since President Ma’s re-election in 2012, protests against the KMT government have intensified and increased in frequency.
As I wrote in August 2013 following the anti-land-grabbing protests, the KMT government consistently sends the wrong message to its citizens. It will keep on pushing buttons and stretching the boundaries of ‘democracy’ until citizens stage a high-profile protest. And it seems that protests are intensifying. From occupying the square in front of the presidential office to demanding military transparency, to taking over and graffiti-spraying the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and now the occupation of the legislative chambers. Who knows what the activist groups will do next to up their game in their desperate cry for democratic accountability?
Taiwanese media outlets, biased along political lines, have been reporting that the activists are either heroic democratic freedom fighters, or are beer-guzzling and reckless children who should be taken home by their parents. In fact, they are none of that. The activists within the occupied Legislative Yuan are medical students, law students, or even young professionals who have quit their jobs to join the protests. Outside the Legislative Yuan an even more diverse crowd of young professionals has gathered.
There is an important point to make here. The ruling KMT party consists of an older generation of Chinese who fled to Taiwan in 1949 and have always treated Taiwan as a temporary stop. Democracy did not come easily to Taiwan. The KMT had society in the grip of a harsh martial law ever since 1949, and Taiwanese citizens were forced to stage protests and sit-ins until the government responded to demands for democracy in 1987. The younger generation grew up enjoying political freedom and economic growth, but most importantly, they feel distinctively Taiwanese. Taiwan is their home and not a province of China.
President Ma has shown himself to be responsive only to escalating, high-profile protest in the past few years. So the central question is, whether the protesters will attempt to escalate the occupation of the Legislative Yuan if the president does not cede to the opposition’s ultimatum. The KMT government is walking a fine line here, as it has been criticised in the past for violently cracking down on such protests.