Taiwan's sunflower protesters end parliament blockade with fighting words

The sit-in was sparked by a proposed service trade agreement with China and evolved into an ongoing headache for the Beijing-friendly government. 

Chiang Ying-ying / AP
Protesters opposing a trade pact with China leave Taiwan's legislative building after a 24-day blockade on April 10. The protestors, most of the them students, left after receiving assurances that the deal they see as imperiling the island's autonomy would undergo legislative review.

Hundreds of student demonstrators called off a blockade of Taiwan’s parliament today after more than three week of protests against a trade deal with China. But the pullout is shaping up to be just a pause in the pro-Beijing government’s worst-ever run of civil unrest, sparked by widespread concerns over threats to the island's autonomy posed by the strengthening of ties with China, a political rival.

Organizers agreed to clear the assembly hall after legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng promised oversight of trade deals with China, such as the agreement on liberalizing the services trade that precipitated the confrontation. Protesters who first gathered to stop that agreement are vowing to continue demonstrating against it at other venues.

The unusually long stretch of unrest has given China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou one of his hardest tests since he took office in 2008. The election-year crisis set off a cabinet-level autopsy of the official response and sparked a chain of sympathetic protests around the island.

“It’s the beginning of his worst political situation, not the end,” says Lai I-chung, vice president of Taiwan Thinktank. “Anything he will do later on is going to cause more anger. The people clearly want different things, and Ma knows that.” 

Mr. Ma’s government signed the service trade pact as part of a series of landmark business-related deals concluded since 2008 with China, Taiwan’s largest trading partner. The agreements are helping to build trust between the two neighbors, but they have stirred fears in Taiwan because China claims Taiwan as its own and has threatened military force to achieve reunification, if needed.

Analysts say the president underestimated the widespread public concern that the two sides are growing too close too fast, jeopardizing Taiwan’s autonomy. Services – such as banking, healthcare, tourism, film, and telecommunications – make up 69 percent of Taiwan’s economy.

Although Ma’s Nationalist Party favors closer business ties with China, it is mindful of its image at home. It faces tough local elections this December and a presidential race in 2016 against a leading opposition party that is more cautious toward Beijing. 

After breaking in on March 18, protesters maintained a round-the-clock occupation of the parliament’s main assembly hall. As they finally filed out today, they carried sunflowers, an icon of the occupy movement, and wore black shirts, a symbol of what they call poor government transparency. They also carried out sacks of trash and ground mats used for sleeping.

The students leave behind broken desks and windows as well, raising questions about who pays for repairs or whether prosecutors will file charges for the break-in that caused much of the damage. 

Inside the police-monitored assembly hall before Thursday's 6 p.m. departure deadline, students took down several large red, orange, and yellow placards bearing their demands and removed barricades from the speaker's chair. Protest leaders, who have become household names, called the pullout a new beginning after they walked out to the street, looking out into a sea of smartphone camera flashes. A nearby public rally that marked their exit drew several thousand people.

The Sunflower Movement will fight on

Protesters plan to continue challenging the service trade deal through speeches and public forums around the island, coinciding with the year-end elections. 

“For me, personally, I’d rather not leave. I feel that we haven’t received a positive response or real respect,” says Liu Yi-hung, a Taipei high school student who joined the occupation on its first day.

Occupation of parliament spiraled last month into a mass break-in of cabinet offices and a 300,000-strong street demonstration. Thousands of police officers were mobilized, blocking dozens of central Taipei streets.

The list of complaints grew  with the unrest. Some protesters accused the government of poor transparency in decision-making on domestic and foreign issues. High housing prices emerged as a grievance. A few were upset over delays in handling the aftermath of the sudden death of an army conscript during punitive confinement last year. Many worry about Taiwan’s democracy as the island courts a Communist rival.

“You could say China is our enemy,” says protester Chris Lin, a young Taipei office worker. “How can we sign this kind of agreement with a country that claims we’re part of it?”

Mr. Ma had criticized occupation as interference in the democratic process and defended the trade pact. He noted a series of public hearings on the agreement and a likely boon to Taiwan’s banks, healthcare providers, and tour operators.

The government also plans to review its response to the crisis, especially its early days, when officials struggled to understand what drove the protests or react to them in time to influence public opinion.

“In the beginning we didn’t see the root of the problem too clearly. What it’s all about is fear,” cabinet spokesman Sun Lih-chyun told a news conference on Tuesday. A thorough review was necessary, he said, “because this time absolutely won’t be the last time.”

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