As long as the issue of the cross-strait service trade agreement drags on, it is bound to cause headaches for the government.
By insisting on sending the agreement directly to the floor of the Legislative Yuan without discussion in the legislature’s Internal Administration Committee, the government operated contrary to procedure and good faith.
In so doing, it ignited the anger that has been building up for a long time among the public.
The government’s obstinacy forced students to take the radical step of occupying the legislative chamber.
As the protest goes on, more students have joined and more people have been voicing their support for the action. The protesters have made the trade pact the focus of national attention.
Different people have different interpretations and perceptions as to whether the agreement will be good for Taiwan, and in a free and democratic society, all sides have an inalienable right to express their opinion.
The government argued that it was not convenient to reveal the contents of negotiations over the agreement while talks were ongoing.
If that is so, then now that the negotiations are over, it should lay everything out in the light of day for the public to examine.
The government no longer has any excuse for keeping things under wraps, and it is even more unreasonable for it to insist that the legislature cannot change a single word of the agreement and that it must approve the whole thing as it stands.
Although government departments have held dozens of public hearings to explain the agreement, these have mostly taken the form of policy announcements, or else the authorities have invited specific business groups to endorse the agreement, rather than genuinely listening to the concerns of people in various sectors or facilitating genuine two-way dialogue.
Many academics, based on their expert knowledge, have pinpointed aspects of the service trade pact that they say are unreasonable, inequitable or opaque, and in some cases even give carte blanche to certain interests.
They accuse the government of only talking about the befefits of the agreement and leaving out the downside. The government’s response has been to repeatedly avoid dialogue and it has been unwilling to provide explanations.
Instead, it has chosen to push ahead with the agreement come what may, which provoked the current backlash.
Clearly, the government’s whole approach has been ill-advised.
Economic growth depends heavily on export trade. China plays a much bigger role in global business and trade than it used to, which is a factor that cannot be ignored.
However, relations across the Taiwan Strait have some special features that are different from those existing among other nations, so interactions between the two sides are bound to involve an extra layer of concern.
Furthermore, there is a big difference in scale between the two economies. Consequently, extra caution is called for in the service trade agreement negotiations.
However, reality should not be blurred by emotion whenever China is involved; accusing the government of supporting “one China” and selling out Taiwan and opposing anything that has anything to do with China is not rational.
At the same time, the Chinese market should be considered as part of the global economy, rather than seeing it as the one and only solution to Taiwan’s economic woes.
Government departments should think over their past performance in this regard to avoid making the same mistakes in forthcoming regional trade negotiations.
Sometimes it takes a step back to go forward. If President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) thinks that the service trade agreement will greatly benefit the economy, he can avoid wasting further time and energy by announcing that he is in favor of letting the agreement be freely and fairly investigated.
He should let the public participate in overseeing the agreement. If he does that and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators are still unwilling to judge the agreement on its merits and instead insist on a pointless boycott, the public will surely view them with contempt.
There is still quite a lot of time to spare before the end of June — the deadline that Ma set for approving the service trade agreement.
Encouraging public participation would be better than leaving it to media pundits to trumpet their various interpretations, which only create greater misunderstandings between the two sides.
It would be a good idea to use the media to hold a number of public debates about the trade agreement. Academics, experts and legislators from the supporting and opposing sides, as well as student representatives and business interests, could be invited to share the platform, speak their minds and cross-examine one another.
The more the matter is debated, the truer a picture people will have of the agreement.
After all, Taiwan is a rational and mature society made up of well-educated people. After listening to one or two such debates, people should be able to judge for themselves whether they should support the agreement as it stands or call for supplements and amendments to the pact. That would be a good way to resolve the present stalemate.
Joining regional economic agreements involves complicated adjustments to business structures and it also calls for intricate negotiating strategies.
The government must make sufficient preparations and communicate fully with the public. It would be a mistake to think that it can always force the public to toe the line by playing the fear card.
There are plenty of examples of negotiations from around the world that Taiwan can use for reference. Today’s telecommunications and broadcasting speeds are faster and more advanced than ever before.
Communications are the most important tool in today’s world, so Ma should tell government officials to dispense with the old Confucian notion that “the people may be made to follow a path of action, but they may not be made to understand it.”
Bureaucrats need to set aside their airs of grandeur and listen carefully to what ordinary people are saying. That is the only way to prevent policies from running up against all kinds of obstacles and delays and achieving nothing in the end.
If government officials do not change their attitude, the nation will miss the opportunity to undergo the transformations that it needs, and the game will end up with no real winner.
That is not an outcome that anyone who cares about Taiwan wants to see.
Du Yu is chief executive officer of the Chen-Li Task Force for Agricultural Reform.
Translated by Julian Clegg