Tea Leaf Nation

Boiling Point

In a historic first, Taiwanese youth are occupying their legislature to protest a trade pact with China.

Getty Images
Getty Images

On March 18, hundreds of college students stormed the chambers of the Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan, its lawmaking body, in the capital Taipei. Over the past two days, they have staged a sit-in — the first student sit-in in the history of the Legislative Yuan — to protest what they view as the opaque ratification of a trade deal with China, after the island’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT) pushed it through parliament on March 18. As economic relations improve between China and Taiwan, partisan bickering has intensified between the KMT, which favors better relations with mainland China, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates independence. Issues like revisions to school textbook language and media monopolies with financial ties to China have sparked concern among Taiwanese of growing mainland influence in Taiwan’s domestic affairs. The division between those Taiwanese favoring reunification, known colloquially as "blue," and those opposed to reunification, known as "green," is one that has wracked the island for decades, and it only appears to be deepening. 

Demonstrators first began gathering outside parliament the day that KMT legislator Chang Ching-chung abruptly ended a hearing, over which he presided, to consider the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, a trade pact between China and Taiwan. Chang declared the agreement — which was signed in June 2013, and had languished without resolution — to have passed out of committee, now able to be placed before the entire legislature for a vote scheduled for on March 21. By 9 p.m. on March 18, angry protesters had broken through a phalanx of officers regularly stationed outside the building, while thousands of college-aged students who had learned about the protests through social media and the Internet thronged in the streets outside. Protesters strummed guitars and sang Bob Dylan’s "The Times They Are a-Changin’."

Taiwanese opponents to the pact are chiefly concerned it could make it more difficult for Taiwanese businesses to compete with their mainland counterparts, and that China will benefit more than Taiwan from investing in the island’s "relatively transparent business environment." But Huang Guo-chang, a law professor at Taipei’s National Chengchi University, a well-known school that teaches politics and law, said the protests are also about "democracy" because Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou did "not allow the legislature to substantively deliberate the agreement. 

The protests have been playing out online as well as offline. Through UStream, a video streaming service, students used iPads to broadcast continuous live video of the sit-in and outdoor demonstrations. They also used it to host question-and-answer sessions, where viewers could write in about any related topic in real time. On March 20, nearly 11,000 UStream viewers tuned in as Chinese dissident Wuerkaixi, a student movement leader during China’s brutally suppressed 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square who now lives in Taiwan, addressed the chamber in a 2:30 a.m. speech, calling on Ma "to come down to apologize to students."

Yoshi Liu, one of the student organizers, told Foreign Policy that if Ma met with protesters, they would ask Ma to "immediately withdraw from the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement," commonly known as ECFA, signed in June 2010 to reduce trade barriers between China and Taiwan. (The latest agreement is an expansion of the ECFA.) Liu added he was unsure how long students would occupy the Legislative Yuan or whether they would move their protests to the presidential palace. (Presidential spokeswoman Lee Chia-fei said on March 20 that Ma and a number of other officials planned to meet among themselves the morning of March 21 to discuss how to "settle" the sit-in and restore order to the Legislative Yuan.)

Student organizers have said seizing the parliament was their only option. Chen Wei-ting, a student organizer attending National Tsing Hua University, a prestigious school in northern Taiwan, wrote on his Facebook page that "an attack is the best defense" and encouraged Taiwanese to head to the Legislative Yuan "after work and class" to take part in the protests.

Others have criticized the sit-in and the protests as unnecessary. In an article published on the website of TVBS, a Taiwanese television station, National Chengchi University professor Ku Chung-hwa asked why "political parties cannot first sit down and talk through" their differences. The article also included remarks from members of "the public," but did not identify those quoted by name. One person commented that protesters should behave "more rationally," while another asked why students were even demonstrating at all since they "don’t trade or do business."

Despite the fact that at least 38 officers have been injured in scuffles with protesters, it appears students have found a sympathetic ear among some police. Officers have told Taiwanese press they do not wish to "bear the burden" of physical confrontation with the students. One officer even reportedly posted on Facebook, Taiwan’s social network of choice, that he, too, was angry about the "careless passage" of the trade pact, emphasizing that police "are not the enemy" but rather "comrades-in-arms" with the protesters "standing opposite" them.

As of this article’s publication, students, who smashed front-door windows and piled up furniture to prevent police from entering, remain barricaded inside the chambers. In a March 20 statement, Legislative Yuan President Wang Jin-pyng urged "calm" and "self-restraint" among protesters and asked that they "allow the Legislative Yuan to return to normal." Ma has not yet issued a statement about whether he will meet with protesters. The Legislative Yuan was expected to take up the trade pact again on March 21. Meanwhile, police have tried on several occasions to storm the Yuan, each time being fended off by protesters. Unless students vacate the parliamentary building before then, further confrontation could be in the offing.

<p class="MsoNormal" style="text-align: justify"> Chris Fuchs is a New York-based freelance journalist who has worked as an editor and reporter in Taiwan and frequently contributes to the Taipei Times. </p>