The last time Taiwanese students mobilized en masse, they brought about an end to decades of martial law. Now they are scenting victory in a new battle for the nation’s soul as they repel government plans to bring China into an ever closer embrace.
For both sides, the debate about deepening trade ties with China is an existential one. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) says that without his mooted cross-strait service trade pact, the economy of heavily export-reliant Taiwan risks sliding into irrelevancy.
However, for the students, Ma is selling their homeland cheaply to a bullying neighbor that still regards Taiwan as its rightful property.
After ending a three-week occupation of the legislative chamber late on Thursday, they threatened more “comprehensive” action unless their demands are met.
“Whatever the fate of the agreement, by any standard, the movement itself is already a setback to Ma’s cross-strait policies,” political scientist George Tsai (蔡瑋) of the Chinese University in Taipei said. “From now on, any government measures relating to China are set to be scrutinized and held up to the strictest standards.”
Ma, who is also chairman of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), has overseen years of warming relations as he seeks to plug Taiwan into the rapid growth that has made China the world’s second-largest economy.
However, just two years into his second and final term, Ma has already become a “lame duck,” the Chinese-language China Times said in an editorial yesterday.
“The student movement for sure will cost the KMT millions of votes from first-time voters” when the nation next goes to the polls in 2016, it said.
Taiwan-China trade has progressed since both sides adopted a tariff-cutting Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in 2010.
Ma says that after the ECFA, the cross-strait service trade pact signed last year would add another half-a-billion US dollars to the economy and create about 12,000 jobs.
This week, he accused protesters of exploiting an “inexplicable fear” of trade with China and said the siege of the Legislative Yuan had alarmed other trading partners, as Taiwan seeks to broaden its commercial reach at a time of deepening economic integration in Asia.
However, for the protesters, the ECFA has failed to deliver on Ma’s promises and closer trade is not worth the risk to Taiwan as China continues to assert its sovereignty over the nation and refuses to rule out the use of force to achieve its ends.
“We are not anti-China, nor do we oppose doing business with China,” said Wu Cheng (吳崢), a student leader. “But we do oppose putting our whole basket of eggs in China when it has never relinquished its ambition [of reunification].”
Meanwhile, China itself has stayed relatively muted throughout the protests, but commentaries in its state media have warned that the student movement could be exploited by Taiwanese opposition politicians keen on a formal divorce from Beijing.