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Lauren Dickey: Is Taiwan the Next Democracy in Crisis?

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
March 20, 2014

Protestors in Taiwan’s legislature in Taipei hold a banner, “Seventy-five percent of Taiwanese people demand item-by-item review,” on March 19, 2014. (Patrick Lin/courtesy Reuters) Protestors in Taiwan’s legislature in Taipei hold a banner, “Seventy-five percent of Taiwanese people demand item-by-item review,” on March 19, 2014. (Patrick Lin/courtesy Reuters)

Lauren Dickey is a research associate for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Taiwan’s ruling Kuomintang party (KMT) has caused quite the kerfuffle. On Monday, March 17, the KMT retreated from an agreement with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to push through a service trade pact with mainland China. The two parties had previously agreed to conduct an itemized review of the trade pact, an agreement the KMT has now chosen not to uphold over claims that the DPP is actively blocking “official business” between the island and Beijing. The KMT’s move may come back to affect domestic politics and haunt cross-strait relations.

If approved, the trade pact will supplement the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement by further dropping barriers on service trade, allowing China to invest in sixty-four of Taiwan’s service sectors and send workers to Taiwan on renewable visas. Opposition parties and civic groups—including the DPP and Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU)—argue that the trade agreement would not only allow China to influence Taiwan’s governing system, but that the economic stipulations would benefit big corporations to the detriment of local Taiwanese enterprises. The KMT’s move to circumvent interparty consensus could be a costly one; such actions not only undermine Taiwan’s democracy but also demonstrate a fundamental, and continued, Taiwanese resistance to ending up in Beijing’s fold.

During a March 18 evening rally outside the government offices, popular discontent with this democratic leapfrogging translated into action as several hundred protestors stormed into and barricaded themselves inside of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament. While corruption and political protests are common in Taiwan, a takeover of parliament is unprecedented. Countless YouTube videos and live streams show the students blocking entrances with chairs and raising banners reading “refuse to allow the trade pact to clear the legislative floor.” Police have so far been unable to remove the protestors. The ongoing student occupation is expected to continue until March 21, when a floor meeting is scheduled.

So what does this mean for Taiwan’s democracy?

First, many Taiwanese are clearly willing to hold their government accountable. On Monday, when the KMT cut short the bipartisan review of the trade agreement, democratic processes were skirted, if not altogether ignored. Student protesters in the Legislative Yuan are exercising their democratic right by demanding a comprehensive review of the agreement that was promised. With sixty-six percent of Taiwanese preferring to support the current state of cross-strait relations, concerns about becoming too easily manipulated by Beijing linger. The “occupy” movement is thus a chance for Taiwanese citizens to raise these concerns and to apply brakes to Taipei’s relationship with Beijing, thereby giving the opposition time to propose a “better agreement” than the current trade pact.

Second, public opposition to Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou is likely to continue. With an approval rating of 12.8 percent, the lowest since his inauguration, broad discontent will continue after President Ma’s under-the-table hustling of the trade agreement with China. The KMT’s unilateral decision to push the trade pact through hurts relations with the opposition DPP. Not allowing full review of the trade agreement has fueled public perceptions that core KMT leaders are sacrificing Taiwanese interests to strengthen ties with mainland China. The protests surrounding the trade pact agreement thus create opportunities for the DPP in both this fall’s local elections and the 2016 presidential elections.

Third, the implications of these protests for cross-strait relations should not be underestimated. Not only will the Taiwanese be skeptical of top Taiwanese leaders when they conduct negotiations with Beijing, but the island will be in no rush to reach subsequent agreements with mainland China. The current occupation movement is proof that a portion of the Taiwanese public feels disenfranchised by its government. It is one thing to have the parliamentary approval process expedited; but when the agreement is not given a full review, leaving the island susceptible to future political or economic influence from Beijing, it is hardly surprising that protests have erupted. Few are ready or willing to see Taiwan become the next Hong Kong.

The Taiwanese know well the challenges of democracy building. These protests will be another learning experience for Taiwan, albeit one with unavoidable consequences for relations with mainland China. As President Ma decides how best to respond to the current protests, he certainly knows Beijing will be watching. If the trade agreement is reconsidered, this would call into question both Taiwan’s ability to implement cross-strait agreements and Beijing’s use of cooperation strategies toward Taipei.

Post a Comment 11 Comments

  • Posted by Travis

    president Ma Ying-jeou’s approval from people is now around 9%.
    12% was too long ago

  • Posted by Sleepless in Taipei

    66%? I would like to know where that number came from. Neither I nor people I know support this demonstration, and we all see free trade as good thing for Taiwan but NOBODY can hear our voice because we are rational and calm.

  • Posted by Dom Wells

    One thing that nobody seems to have mentioned, which is information readily available on the ECFA website, is that Wang Jing Ping (the leader of the DPP in the legislative yuan) received the full copy of the FTA nearly 10 months ago in July 2013.

    He signed receipt of the document, and promised to review it with the rest of the DPP. Instead, they repeatedly refused to check the document, and preferred to start a fight on Monday the 17th. That’s why the KMT gave up and ignored them.

  • Posted by James Yu

    Premier Jiang Yi-huah called for a rational, peaceful and democratic response to the Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services as university students continue their demonstration at the Legislative Yuan. Premier Jiang lauded citizens for their concern for public affair while hoping that people will exchange their views in a mature, free and democratic manner, and also emphasizing the pact is beneficial to the country and that its review process is not a “black box operation.”

    As a matter of fact, the Legislative Yuan held a total of 16 public hearings on the agreement since it was signed in June 2013. In addition, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Mainland Affairs Council and other agencies have jointly organized over 100 forums to explain the pact to the public. Regarding the more vulnerable industries such as laundry, beauty salons and herbal medicine, over the course of several months the government has gradually acquired their understanding and support.

    The passage of the agreement is not only crucial to the country’s future economic and trade competitiveness but also marks another important step toward liberalization and internationalization. A responsible government must persist in pushing forward policies that benefit citizens in order to lead the country toward a better future.

  • Posted by Taiwan's democratic generation

    Good article. For people who think the agreement is key to Taiwan’s economic future, you’ll be surprised how KMT government provides no real evidence how this pact will benefit Taiwan. The only government study predicted that it will bring about 0.025%-0.034% of GDP–so miniscule when you contemplate the social and political consequences of the pact.

    To add a few words, the generational factor is key in this protest. As the younger Taiwanese generation is educated in a more democratic society after 1990s, this protest is best understood as a generational uproar against the political system that disenfranchises them. The young Taiwanese are fed up with the illusion that siding with China is Taiwan’s only way out, and demand more democracy to secure the country’s future.

  • Posted by JenniferWang

    I think the information foreign news agencies are receiving are unbalanced, most only hear from the opposition, but there are still lots of people who are for this pact, why not also publish their thoughts? Only when both sides of the argument are published can people outside of Taiwan fully understand the situation. Nevertheless, despite the fact that the passing of this pact didn’t violate the law, it is indeed rash and perhaps doesn’t reflect the voices of the people (after all the brainwashing from the media, I really don’t know which has the greater number-people truly against this pact or people truly for it).

  • Posted by Taiwan Citizen

    First , under normal circumstance, the public hearings should be held and discussed before any treaty or agreement is signed. However, KMT government sign the trade agreement with China first, without informing the congress nor the public in advance.
    Second, the so-called “public hearing” did only the announcement work. There is no substantial/bilateral communication and no feedback from government to questions raised from public.

  • Posted by ana

    all the comments here sound like they come from 五毛
    or you are all blinded by greed that you’re all willing to sell out your own country to the highest bidder, and your next door bully.

    it’s a shame how obtuse you all are and can’t see beyond your own noses. this is economic warfare. wake up taiwan!

  • Posted by Sherry Wen

    Wang Jing Ping is not from the DPP although he is the leader of
    legislative yuan

  • Posted by Ken

    The passing of this pact was completed by a KMT law-maker 張慶忠 with his personal microphone.

    Moreover, those “public hearings” and “forums”, held both by the Legislative Yuan and the Ministry of Economic Affairs do not allay the general public’s skepticism and concerns about Taiwan’s economic and political future.

    If the agreement were passed, Taiwan’s already competitive industries, may be weakened by some of China’s companies. Taiwan’s trade liberalization and internationalization may not necessarily need to involve China in the way that is proposed in this controversial pact.

  • Posted by Xiani Zheng

    As I recall Wang Jing Ping is the Speaker of the Legislative Yuan, from the KMT, although the KMT tried to expell him from the party (an lost the legal battle in a court) for doing his job as Speaker.

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