It is the 20th day of the student-led protest prompted by the cross-strait service trade agreement, and President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration still seems incapable of understanding what the movement represents.
The two demands stressed by the protesters — that the Executive Yuan withdraw the pact and establish an effective oversight mechanism for cross-strait negotiations before legislative review of the pact begins — simply express that Taiwanese want to have their say on their own and their nation’s futures, both critically linked to China.
Had the government been paying attention to the public’s demands, it would not have drafted the oversight bill on Thursday. This bill would augment the power of the executive branch over cross-strait negotiations. It would not allow the legislature to decide whether such pacts are subject to legislative review or are sent to the legislature only for the record. Additionally, it includes a clause that would allow a deal to automatically take effect three months after submission — extendable by another three months with the permission of the legislature.
The government should have agreed to the protesters’ request for a “citizens’ constitutional conference” to address fundamental questions about the Ma administration operating as a “unitary executive” — meaning that the administration acts as though it is above the system of checks and balances.
Instead, the administration called for a “national affairs conference on economics and trade” to address how cross-strait relations affect Taiwan’s prospects for regional economic integration.
Accusing the students of bringing an ever-changing and ever-expanding list of demands, when the government has come up with so-called “positive responses,” constitutes a reversal of the law of cause and effect.
Regarding its own responses as a way to end the occupation “gracefully and honorably,” as Premier Jiang Yi-huah (江宜樺) has said, represents nothing more than a callous disregard for the desire to examine a larger issue than the trade pact, and an indifference to concerns that China is gaining too much leverage.
The main ideas behind the student-led movement are clear: Keeping Taiwan’s democracy healthy requires that everyone — including the public sector, civil society and individuals — go beyond voting in an election year to fully exercise citizen participation in public affairs; legislative processes must be held accountable; and the nation’s most cherished ideals should not take a back seat to commercial and other interests in the government’s cross-strait policy.
It is understandable that the authorities reject these ideas, because they have a vested interest in keeping power concentrated among an exclusive elite. That drives the strategy of labeling, vilification, intimidation and repression that confront the movement.
Disapproval is also to be expected, especially in a nation haunted by a divided sense of identity. As time goes by, students might have to battle growing frustrations, internal divisions, declining public support and a variety of accusations, both at home and abroad.
While the main text of the agreement — a specific list of commitments on opening up the trade in services, and a definition of service providers — may seem arcane and the government has not explained the pact’s contents in detail, academic research on the pact has been prolific, comprehensive and reflective.