The current stalemate over the cross-strait service trade agreement can be divided into at least three levels or aspects, as can the protesters’ aims and the authorities’ possible responses.
The first point of contention is the protesters’ opposition to what they call the “black-box” or closed-door procedure involved in drawing up, signing and scrutinizing the agreement.
One accusation is that the signing process was not subject to sufficient oversight, and another that the appropriate procedure for deliberating the agreement in the legislature has not been followed. Possible solutions include a review or subjecting the agreement to clause-by-clause legislative scrutiny.
The second level has to do with weighing up the agreement’s likely advantages and disadvantages for Taiwan.
One of the points raised here is that even if the agreement delivers a bigger cake, it will still be shared out unequally between the rich and the poor, and it will only benefit certain businesses.
Deeper consideration touches on the question of whether free trade suits Taiwan’s economy, in which small and medium-scale enterprises play the main role.
Possible solutions include sending the agreement back for renegotiation or scrapping it altogether.
The third level of the controversy is also the most fundamental. It is the bottom card that is sure to come to the top as the protests draw on.
Although it has been overshadowed by the protesters’ over-ambitious attempt to occupy the Executive Yuan, once this card is laid on the table it will help toward clarifying the vague and confusing definitions of Taiwan and/or the Republic of China, and cementing the strategic aims of the protest movement.
The common core of agreement among the protesters is the doubts they harbor about the current administration’s orientation in cross-strait relations based on constitutional definitions, and about all agreements signed with China on this basis.
The “minimum program” of the protests is, therefore, the adoption of a law on oversight over cross-strait relations, while its “maximum program” is the resignation of government leaders and a transformation of the prevailing constitutional order, which actually means the prevailing order in cross-strait relations.
The current struggle helps to place this most fundamental of questions on the table, reconfirming to the US and China what Taiwan’s strategic intentions are and reducing uncertainty in future regional interactions.
A lot of what is being said in the Sunflower student movement indicates that “procedure” and “trade liberalization” are not the crucial issues.
The most fundamental question is that of Taiwan’s relations with China.
If the matter at stake had been Taiwan’s relations with New Zealand, Singapore or other free-trade partners, the first two aspects of contention would not have generated widespread doubts and even fears.
The public’s sense of fear is not just connected with reality; it is still more closely related to each person’s understanding of “China” and “cross-strait relations,” and their own self-identity.
If we were dealing with a situation such as US beef flooding into Taiwan — which might have an impact on food safety or certain kinds of business or disadvantaged groups — they would be less likely to induce fear and might indeed be welcomed.