As China diplomacy twists in the wind, Taiwan's students press for reform

A year ago, the Sunflower Movement wrong-footed President Ma Ying-jeou over the ratification of a controversial trade pact with China. Hundreds of protesters turned out Sunday in Taiwan's capital to mark the anniversary. 

Wally Santana/AP
About 300 students gathered outside Taiwan's parliament on Sunday to mark the one year anniversary of the Sunflower movement.

Cheng Yu-chen tried to break into Taiwan’s parliament a year ago this month with several hundred other young activists whose subsequent 24-day occupation grounded his island’s improving relations with old foe China and continues to weigh on Taiwanese politics.

So the history major at Soochow University in Taipei returned with thousands of others this week for a series of anniversary events to mark the March 18 occupation – and make sure China is kept in check.

Last year he didn’t make it past the guards into the assembly hall. And he’s not calling for another occupation this year in order to press Taiwanese lawmakers to heed the protesters’ call for legal guarantees that give the public a stronger voice on China policy. But he does want change.

“I basically hope the Taiwan government will take people’s demands and ideas seriously and then use a more democratic and direct way to do handle those ideas,” Cheng said.

The Sunflower Movement, the name given to those who occupied parliament, contributed to a landslide opposition victory in local elections last November. It became President Ma Ying-jeou’s biggest challenge since his first election in 2008, and braked his push for greater trade and investment with Beijing.  His opponents, who are gearing up for a presidential election in January 2016, favor more cautious diplomacy towards China.

Prior to last year’s occupation, Mr. Ma’s Nationalist Party had concluded 21 deals with Beijing aimed at boosting Taiwan’s economy and easing tensions with the Communist leadership. Now the party seems unlikely to strike any similar pacts this year or hold high-level meetings to avoid reigniting protests, analysts say.

“Now KMT officials and candidates will need to put more emphasis on assuring the public that future steps in China-Taiwan cooperation will not harm Taiwan's interests,” says Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center think tank in Honolulu. 

“Large, sweeping cross-Strait agreements are no longer possible,” he says. “Scrutiny of all proposed agreements will be greater, and skepticism deeper.”

A battle over services

A month ago last year, opposition Democratic Progressive Party legislators and student-led protesters in the streets figured the Nationalists would not agree to line-item ratification of the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement. It was signed with China in 2013 to liberalize 144 categories such as finance, healthcare and tourism, a potential boon to Taiwanese businesses.

A line-item review would have let parliament veto clauses considered harmful to Taiwan and potentially send the deal back for further negotiations. 

On the night of March 18, 2014, a group of protesters led by students breached the parliament gates to seize the podium, figuring that was the only way to stop fast-track ratification.

“You can’t just say ‘change’ and then change happens,” says John Lin, a National Taiwan University student who participated. The government’s direction “is very rigid. You have to go behind the scenes.”

One group broke into a secured cabinet compound, and were later ejected by police. Protesters had called for more transparency and inclusion of more voices in negotiating with China; some argued Taiwan should quit talking to Beijing as long as the two are divided politically.

The two sides have been separately ruled since the civil war of the 1940s but China claims sovereignty over Taiwan. Since 2008 Communist leaders have dangled economic incentives, including various trade, transit and investment deals reached during Ma’s tenure. Taiwanese exporters support the deals, which have also created 9,600 local jobs, according to a government tally.

Political impasse for Beijing

China has kept quiet since last year about the political impasse in Taiwan to avoid stirring new anger but analysts say it’s nervous about the prospect of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party regaining the presidency it lost in 2008.  

“They know Ma doesn’t have the mandate anymore and don’t know who’s going to be elected,” says Raymond Wu, managing director of Taipei-based political risk consultancy E-telligence.

Anniversary rallies this week have called for legislative passage of bills guaranteeing public oversight of Taiwan-China relations, including requirements for parliamentary input on trade pacts, and for constitutional changes that would obligate lawmakers to consider common people’s opinions.

Protesters quit their occupation last year because the parliament speaker pledged to delay service trade pact ratification until after approval of an oversight bill. But activists and opposition party lawmakers find the government’s version too weak. Activists have floated eight counter-versions, challenging legislators for 11 months to reach compromise.

“The gap is so large that it’s hard to reach a consensus,” says Hsu Yung-ming, a Soochow University political scientist.

The cabinet said in a statement Wednesday, the March 18 anniversary, that its version answers the call of protesters. “The bill is intended to enhance transparency, citizen involvement, legislative supervision and national security when Taiwan negotiates pacts with mainland China,” it said.

Ma’s deputy China policymaker said in January the government would continue pursuing closer economic ties with Beijing. The two sides held initial, low-level negotiations late last year on a trade deal that could cut thousands of import tariffs.

“In the Sunflower follow up we need some forward motion,” says Su Chien-cheng, a Sunflower anniversary rally participant from New Taipei City. “You can’t say the job was partly completed a year ago and now stop.”

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