The mass rally on Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei on Sunday drew almost half a million people and the events surrounding the March 18 occupation of the legislature have made headlines around the world. What happened, and what prompted these sudden developments?
Taiwanese are fully aware of the course of events, and many in academia, civil society and among the public have expressed support for the student protesters. Recent opinion polls show that an overwhelming majority endorse the students’ concerns over the cross-strait service trade agreement, ranging from 76.1 percent — in the Chinese-language Business Week — to 80 percent in the Liberty Times, (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper).
However, for observers abroad, it might not be so easy to understand the underlying reasons for the unfolding events.
Let us examine what led up to this discontent. The immediate reason can be traced back to the events in the Legislative Yuan on March 17, when the chairman of a committee charged with conducting the review of the proposed pact opened and closed a meeting within 30 seconds without any substantive discussion, forwarding it to the plenary session for a vote.
This breach of a formal agreement to do a clause-by-clause review, brokered by Legislative Speaker Wang Jin-pyng (王金平) in the summer of last year, was, in the view of many, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
However, the tensions have been building for a long time. As British academic Dafydd Fell stated in his essay (“Importance of social movements in Taiwan,” page 8, March 20), “in recent years the government has failed to engage with society.”
For the past several years civic organizations have become increasingly frustrated by what they view as a lack of responsiveness by the government.
“To the outsider, it may seem hard to comprehend that so much anger has built up due to the government’s refusal to review a service trade agreement. However, the root of the problem has been a gradual building up of tensions and frustration within society,” Fell wrote.
The student protests are part of this frustration about how democracy works in Taiwan.
There is another angle to the situation: This is a trade agreement with a large neighbor which has a different system of government. Some have even compared the situation of Taiwan to that of Ukraine a few months ago, where students and activists demonstrated against a proposed economic agreement with Russia.
Like their counterparts on Maidan Square in Kiev, the students in Taiwan are concerned about the political implications of the trade agreement: Will it leave Taiwan the freedom to determine its own future?
So it certainly appears to be less of a discussion about “free trade” and more about the future of the country as a free democracy. If the trade agreement had been with Canada for example, few in Taiwan would have objected, but because it is with China, which has specific designs on the nation and its people, the public are nervous.
What would be the best way out? That is up to the Taiwanese to decide, but it would befit the US to emphasize that it fully supports Taiwan’s vibrant democracy and the right of Taiwanese to determine their own future, free from outside coercion.
The US needs to do more to help end Taiwan’s international diplomatic isolation, so that it does not increasingly drift into China’s economic and political sphere of influence, but remains a free and spirited member of the international community.
In this regard, the US must examine more carefully the implications of this trade agreement.
Nat Bellocchi served as chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan from 1990 to 1995. The views expressed in this article are his own.