Clutching sunflowers and shouting “defend democracy,” several hundred protesters gathered Sunday afternoon in New York’s Times Square to criticize the President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) administration for its lack of transparency in legislating a trade agreement with China, and to condemn what they called the “government’s irresponsible violence” against student protesters in Taiwan.
Sunday’s protest — one of dozens organized throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia – was coordinated to come on the heels of a massive Sunday demonstration that attracted more than 200,000 participants to the streets outside the Presidential Office in Taipei. Protesters, led by student organizers Chen Wei-ting (陳為廷) and Lin Fei-fan (林飛帆), called on Ma to retract the cross-strait service trade agreement, signed in June 2013, and to safeguard Taiwan’s democracy.
Critics of the pact, which would open up dozens of service sectors in Taiwan to Chinese investment, say that China’s large corporations would have an unfair competitive advantage against small and medium-sized Taiwanese businesses. The agreement has also fanned fears over China’s growing influence in Taiwan’s affairs. Ma has said the agreement is “entirely necessary for the future of Taiwan.”
Similar to Sunday’s protest in Taipei, the New York event was peaceful and high-spirited, despite a wind-whipped steady drizzle, and it featured a number of musicians and speakers including Evelyn Wong (黃怡寧), the granddaughter of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝).
Standing on a makeshift stage on Seventh Avenue, with a massive LED billboard owned by Xinhua News Agency, China’s state-controlled media, looming in the distance, Wong told protesters that today’s generation of Taiwanese needs to “throw the rule book out” and challenge some of the traditions instilled in them while growing up, like always being “told to be polite, to be quiet, to study hard and to mind your own business.”
“We are not just fighting for democracy, we’re not just fighting for freedom,” Wong said. “We are fighting for our future. We are fighting to preserve Taiwan, the Taiwan we love and remember.”
Later on, a guitarist took the stage and led the audience in singing Rise Up (起來), an anthemic song performed by alternative rock group Mayday, which has been embraced by some protesters as a battle hymn for what is called the Sunflower Movement.
Liu Wen (劉文), a student organizer of a group called Taiwan is Not for Sale, which held its own demonstration outside the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York on March 21, cautioned that the energy of the crowd should not be mistaken for a celebration or karaoke-like event.
“We’re here to express our disappointment and anger toward Ma’s administration,” she said.
Protests over the trade agreement have enveloped Taipei since students stormed the Legislative Yuan and occupied its chambers on March 18. The occupation, the first in the legislature’s history, came just one day after Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislator Chang Ching-chung (張慶忠) presided over a meeting at which he hastily declared the pact reviewed and submitted it for a final vote. Ma has said that Chang ended the meeting only after legislators from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) prevented him from taking the podium.
Tensions boiled over on March 24, when protesters attempted to occupy the Executive Yuan, the branch of Taiwan’s government that promulgates laws. Using police batons and water cannons, police repelled demonstrators and regained control of the building. Students and protesters have accused police of using excessive force, pointing to photos and videos of bloodied protesters that have been shared extensively through social media.