From various perspectives, the Sunflower movement led by Taiwanese students has created a monument in the nation’s democratic history. In response to the unprecedented rally, which involved hundreds of thousands of people peacefully gathering on Sunday last week to protest against the cross-strait service trade agreement, President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration reluctantly consented to some of the students’ appeals and released an oversight bill to monitor future agreements with China.
Nevertheless, an incompatible divergence between the students and the government has not been defused, since this oversight draft will not apply to the service trade pact, which is the focus of discord between the protesters and the government.
The Sunflower movement not only symbolizes a brand new page of civil participation in Taiwan’s history, but also has some exhilarating implications.
First, a new generation of Taiwanese students has shown a strong attachment to the nation’s future. Their claims are also broadly echoed by the majority of the public, which culminated in a mass demonstration, unparalleled in recent years.
Second, the most significant and exciting factor springing from the movement is that the spirit of democracy has become an inalienable part and a deep-rooted belief of most Taiwanese, which constitutes an invincible shield to defend the nation from foreign aggression.
Unfortunately, this movement has also exposed some worrying and disappointing drawbacks for constitutional practice. First, the movement signalled a catastrophic failure and dysfunction of the representative system. Lawmakers not only failed to perform their jobs in terms of overseeing the executive branch, but also fell short of fulfilling public expectation, causing the protesters to take the radical step of occupying the legislative chamber to draw the public’s attention to how the controversial pact was recklessly handled in the legislature.
Second, after a series of constitutional reforms in past decades, power has been disproportionately concentrated with the president and the Executive Yuan. The weakened Legislative Yuan has lost its grip on the executive branch. Given the fact that Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) lawmakers are strictly controlled and disciplined by their party and its chairman, who happens to also be the president, and that these officials comprise the majority of the legislature, the branch has become a rubber stamp for the Executive Yuan and has lost its original function — placing checks and balances on the executive branch.
The combination of a dysfunctional legislature and irresponsible lawmakers on the issue of the service trade pact triggered the students’ outrage and the public’s discontent.
Nevertheless, an indisputable reality is that the core of this widespread anxiety over the pact largely stems from people’s growing apprehension of the creeping economic influence of China. Proponents of cross-strait economic integration say that the Sunflower movement is a symptom of an irrational “China-phobia,” which is not only unwise, but also self-defeating. They claim Taiwan could not revitalize its economy if it refused to increase economic engagements with China the world’s second-largest economy and potentially its No. 1 economy.
However, the student protesters and other opponents of the pact say that they are not rejecting economic engagement with China, but are asking for a more thorough and transparent review, prudent and verifiable impact assessments and institutional channels of civil participation regarding the signing of treaties with Beijing, since the repercussions of these agreements are likely to bear consequences for the survival of Taiwan.