April 4, 2014
It was only a matter of time before the efforts by Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou to improve relations with Beijing came up against the brutal truth that the vast majority of the island’s 23 million people do not want to be part of China.
Many Taiwanese have watched with increasing unease as Ma, elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2012, has chipped away at the walls of animosity carrying over from China’s civil war in 1949 when the Kuomintang (KMT) government fled to the island after defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communists.
Ma first oversaw the establishment of direct trade and communication links between Taiwan and China. Then, in 2010, Beijing and Taipei agreed on a basic free trade pact called the Economic Co-operation and Framework Agreement (ECFA).
Ordinary Taiwanese, however, have seen little benefit from the ECFA, which many see as allowing Beijing to dominate the island’s economy in furtherance of China’s ultimate aim of taking political control of the country, by force if necessary.
The tipping point — the bridge too far across the Taiwan Strait — came on March 18 after the KMT cut off debate in parliament, the Legislative Yuan, on a bill to enact an extension of the ECFA into service sectors such as banking, publishing, health services, tourism and construction.
While this agreement would also give Taiwanese businesses new access to Chinese markets, opponents of the pact, including Taiwan’s main opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party, say the deal is inevitably unequal. With the world’s second largest economy and 1.3 billion people, China’s capacity to swamp Taiwan’s economy, especially its small businesses, and ultimately take control of the island nation, far exceeds any benefits Taiwan may get from increased access to China.
On March 18 after KMT legislators backtracked on an agreement to allow careful scrutiny of the controversial bill and shut down debate after only 30 second, hundreds of students occupied the Legislative Yuan.
Their aim was to stop the KMT using its majority in parliament to force through to the bill and to demand reinstatement of the agreement for clause-by-clause debate of the legislation.
Three weeks later, the students are still in control of the parliament in what they call the “sunflower occupation” in defence of what they characterise as Taiwan’s hard-won democracy and social freedoms. Early in the occupation, a florist sent a bouquet of sunflowers to the students as a gesture support, and they adopted the flower as symbol of their protest.
Meanwhile on the streets and squares outside there have been mass rallies in which up to half a million people – the largest demonstrations in the country’s history – have voiced support for the students and opposition to the deal with China.
The impasse has highlighted the depths of political impotency to which Ma slipped since his re-election with an impressive majority in 2012. Polls consistently show his public support at less than 10 per cent, and there are regular reports that the KMT may try to sideline him well ahead of the next elections in 2016 in order to have time to rebuild the party’s standing.
One of Ma’s key opponents within the KMT is the Speaker of the Legislative Yuan, Wang Jin-pyng. There is little doubt that Ma’s instincts are to send in the police to remove the students from the parliament.
But the Legislative Yuan in Wang’s territory, and Ma has no constitutional authority to override “parliamentary autonomy.” Wang has been notably reluctant to authorise the police to remove the students, and equally opaque about the circumstances under which he might allow such action.
Although the KMT has its roots in China, and the party’s 50-year rule over Taiwan under martial law before the advent of democracy in the 1980s, has left unhealed political wounds, most members of the ruling party see themselves as champions of the island. They cannot ignore the fact that about 90 per cent of Taiwan’s people consistently say they want to maintain their independence and want no political union with China.
On the international stage, the student occupation in Taipei has been overshadowed by events in Ukraine, where street protests led to the flight of a pro-Russian president, and Moscow responded by occupying the majority Russian Crimea in the east of the country.
While some have voiced the fear that China’s President Xi Jinping might take the same opportunity as his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and use the student occupation as an excuse to fulfil Beijing’s threat to invade Taiwan, that is not a realistic prospect. For one thing, the Taiwanese military, unlike its Ukrainian counterpart, would fight. For another, the United States has domestic legislation, the Taiwan Affairs Act, which commits Washington to the defence of Taiwan. And Japan, which remains a key economic partner and a cultural icon for very many Taiwanese, is unlikely to stand idly by either.
The Beijing government has remained largely silent on what is happening in Taiwan and has ensured that little news of events on the island appears in Chinese media. But it would be surprising if Beijing had not already concluded that Ma is a frail ally with rapidly diminishing authority and that relations with Taiwan have now reached a roadblock which may take years to overcome.
Ma’s administration has been made to look foolish, duplicitous and inept on the international stage. Its response has been to loose its diplomats in a rather hysterical campaign to try to influence the message published by western media, including here in Canada.
They had some initial success in spinning the message that the students were indulging in an essentially undemocratic, illegal act. The official line is that the occupation and its fall-out will imperil Taiwan’s economy and further trade agreements, not only with China, but other Pacific Rim partners as well.
But that gloss has been smothered by the evident public support for the students and the clear message to Ma that Taiwanese are determined that their nationhood and independence will not be bartered away.
Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014
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