Depending on how one looks at it, today could either be the beginning of a new era of trade in the Taiwan Strait or a day of infamy for Taiwan as an independent country. What is already certain is that the entire negotiation process for the economic cooperation framework agreement (ECFA) was dangerously rushed and, even more important, undemocratic.
The fact that the ECFA was arranged in less than six months, when similar bilateral trade agreements often require years, is in itself worrying. It is doubly so when the bigger party involved does not recognize the existence of the smaller party.
This unprecedented approach to trade negotiations — which did not take place under the WTO umbrella, something that would have ensured that both parties were treated as equals — was also conducted behind closed doors and will be reviewed by a legislature that is almost three-quarters controlled by President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). This is the same legislature that, reviewing previous agreements signed with China, has acted more as a rubber stamp than an actual check on the powers of the executive.
In light of these shortcomings, the two major opposition parties launched referendum initiatives in an attempt to give the public a direct say on a matter of national concern. Both attempts were rejected by the government, on technicalities that, according to some, would have been met with incredulity in other democracies.
Another, and perhaps more relevant, argument against a public referendum on an ECFA is the fact that the majority of the population is ill equipped to pass judgement on such an agreement, because most people do not understand the implications well enough to be given the power to change policy. This argument has some merit, but whose fault is it? How could the population be adequately informed about a trade pact when its content has never been made public? Ignorance imposed on a people because it serves the purposes of a government cannot be accepted as a reasonable argument to deny people the right to vote.
Others could argue that Taiwanese reaped what they sowed when in 2008 they elected a party that has never given up on its dream of unification with China, and that they now have to live with the consequences of that decision. Fair enough, but voters made that choice after years of KMT localization under former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), who on Saturday came out in strong opposition to the ECFA and Ma. Back in 2008, many Taiwanese bought into the delusion that the KMT faction that was pro-Beijing would not be running the party. Voters could not have imagined that a large share of Ma’s China policy — at least the negotiation part — would be conducted by unelected officials.
Lastly, many Taiwanese who voted for Ma did so because they believed he was the right man to “revive” the economy and improve strained relations with key allies. Never did they think he would propel the nation into a sea of uncertainty by adopting hurried and undemocratic means to shove paradigm-changing cross-strait agreements down people’s throats.
Yes, Taiwanese were perhaps too ignorant, too blind, to be given the power of a referendum and yes their response would consequently be mostly an emotional, if not “irrational” one. But this situation has been deliberately created by government secrecy, and Taiwanese have the right to decide the future of their own country, even if they do so in a purely emotional fashion.