Tea Leaf Nation

China, We Fear You

China, We Fear You

On March 18, thousands of students began a sit-in of Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan in the capital, Taipei, a historic first that has paralyzed the island’s lawmaking body. Students have amassed to protest an attempt by the Kuomintang, the island’s ruling party, to push through a trade pact with China. The Taiwanese government negotiated the pact, known as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), with its mainland counterparts and tried to push it through the legislature without debating the pact item by item. Sentiment against the CSSTA immediately reached a boiling point among many Taiwanese already anxious about the increasing influence of China, its neighbor, cultural cousin, and closest trade partner — one that claims to have sovereignty over Taiwan. The essay below was written by a Taiwanese attorney, Richard Chiou-yuan Lu, and has gone viral on Facebook, Taiwan’s social network of choice. Foreign Policy translates an edited excerpt, with permission.

Many people don’t understand what the CSSTA says, so some protesters don’t even know why they oppose it. No one in Taiwan dares to write in support of the pact because sentiment here has almost reached the point where anyone who dares to support the CSSTA is seen as a traitor. But could Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou really have been that flagrant in selling us out? If everyone believes that the agreement is bad for Taiwan, why did Ma insist on signing it?

Put simply, the CSSTA opens up cross-strait investment in the service sector. In the future, Taiwanese investors will have far more latitude in China to go into sectors like hospitals, publishing, tutoring, and banking. The same will be true of Chinese investors here. For Taiwanese financiers, the benefits absolutely outweigh the drawbacks. For average Taiwanese people, if they don’t mind having a Chinese boss, there will be more jobs because increased investment in Taiwan will bring about more employment opportunities. 

In fact, according to the pact, China will open up more sectors to us (80) than we to them (64). If our legislature had voted on the agreement one provision at a time, it would not have been favorable for us, because the whole negotiation would need to be reopened. In renegotiation, it’s unreasonable to expect China to let us insert yet more provisions that work for us but not demand something in return.

If the CSSTA were with any other country, it would be acceptable. If Japan’s economy opened up to Taiwanese capital and Japanese companies were to set up branches here, and there ended up being Japanese people all over our streets, would that be so bad? Not for Japanophiles like me. But Japan would not give us these favorable terms because it would insist on equal exchange and not give an inch in negotiations. As economists say, there’s no free lunch. Why should China act any differently?

Kids, we all know China "loves" us. They want us to return to the "motherland" as soon as possible. But first they have to seize our economy by its lifeline. If one day our convenience stores and supermarkets become Chinese-owned, the Taiwan Taxi company is renamed Chinese Taiwan Taxi, our bank and credit card records are sent to headquarters in Beijing, and directors of our top hospitals are replaced by Chinese, can we accept that?

The truth is, the Taiwanese companies that can afford to set up branches in China are large conglomerates, and those Taiwanese profiting the most from the CSSTA are tycoons and their families, not your family or mine. As far as Chinese companies are concerned, their investment in Taiwan is a drop in the bucket that won’t affect their overall operations. And those Chinese companies are deeply influenced by their political system. If Taiwan were to hold a referendum on independence, the Chinese government might order its companies to cease operations in Taiwan. For example, our convenience stores would close and our taxi service would stop, assuming they had Chinese investment, and Beijing would have our credit card records and hospital records in hand. With such a scenario staring us in the face, could we still hold the referendum? 

This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Something like this has already happened to our media when the Want Want Group, which has significant business in China, acquired the China Times, one of Taiwan’s largest newspapers, in November 2008. People’s Daily, China’s widely reviled Communist Party mouthpiece, is probably better than what the China Times has become today.

The truth is that if the counterparty to the agreement were a country other than China — or a democratized China that would treat Taiwan as an equal and stop trying to achieve its political agenda through business, and didn’t want to swallow us up — we’d happily accept the pact. Take the words from the above paragraphs and insert "Japan" or "the United States" in place of China — there would be no issue. When Taiwan signed a free trade agreement with New Zealand in June 2013, the public wasn’t out for blood then.

But why is it that when it comes to China, we won’t give an inch? It’s because we’re afraid of you, China. Really. We’re very afraid.

Translated by David Wertime and Rachel Lu