Special to WorldTribune.com
TAIPEI, Taiwan — Hundreds of thousands of “black-clad army” members rallied for democracy at Ketagalan Blvd. in front of the presidential office and streets nearby here on March 30. They wore black to symbolize what they call the “black box” (no transparency and no due process) decision-making of President Ma Ying-jeou on a Taiwan-China service trade agreement. They demand that Ma have the pact retracted.
Estimates of the number of demonstrators varied widely. The rally organizers and the media claimed approximately 500,000 people, who came from all walks of life throughout Taiwan and most of them students and young people, joined the protest. But the National Police Agency, apparently trying to lower the impact of the protest, put the number only at 116,000.
The demonstrators also carried sunflowers, which have become a symbol of the students’ protest as the media dubbed the “Sun Flower Movement.” They were also wearing yellow ribbons that read “Oppose the trade pact, save Taiwan,” and chanted slogans “Protect our democracy, retract the trade pact.”
The mass rally, which has since received a world-wide attention, followed the ongoing student-led occupation of the legislative chamber of Taiwan’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan (LY), beginning on March 18. On that evening, hundreds of students broke off from an over-night sit-in, scaled the tall fence of the LY and seized the legislative chamber. Their extraordinary move was incited by a hoax staged by the lawmakers of President Ma’s Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) the previous day to railroad the trade pact through the LY Committee, without an item-by-item close examination as previously promised.
After successfully fending off several police attempts to re-take the Chamber, the “Sun Flower Movement” has captured media attention and steadily won growing support from Taiwan’s academic and literary elites, prominent NGOs, and attentive public. Thousands of students and concerned citizens sit in the streets around the LY compound day and night to show their solidarity with the protesters inside the Chamber. They listen to lectures by professors and experts on issues related to the service trade pact with China, and sing along with professional singers and musicians who are performing to cheer up the protesters, much as in a carnival of democracy.
The trade pact: Why not?
Contrary to President Ma’s claim that his pro-China policy and 19 specific agreements to liberalize trade and investment with China would help boost Taiwan’s economy, in reality Taiwan’s overall economy has fared poorly. True, not a few big businesses have benefited considerably from the opening of the cross-strait economic engagement, but these are exceptions, while the ordinary folks have suffered from the flights of capitals and relocation of production facilities to China.
Unemployment has been high particularly among youth.
There are widespread concerns that the service trade pact with China would badly harm local businesses especially the small and medium enterprises. Moreover, in addition to economic woes, many are also worried that the trade pact would have greater adverse political and security implications. They say that, in the guise of business managers and shop-keepers, Chinese Communist agents and “fifth column” may worm their way into Taiwan to engage in espionage, sabotage, subversion and united front operation to facilitate China’s annexation of Taiwan. Yes, many Taiwanese citizens take note of Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea.
Hence, the student activists have put forth two demands to President Ma’s government. First, they ask Ma to retract the trade pact from the legislature and enact an umbrella oversight law to supervise the cross-strait agreements. Second, convene a citizens’ constitutional conference with representatives from all walks of life to institute reforms to enable the public’s full and active participation in major national issues. The reason for the change is, they argue, Taiwan’s representative democracy has been impaired and rendered dysfunctional by the KMT party-state authoritarian regime.
Apparently President Ma has been angered and also embarrassed by the protest movement and the students’ continued occupation of the LY chamber that lasts almost 3 weeks. Ironically, Ma was the catalyst. Doubling as the KMT chairman, he instructed the Party’s lawmakers in mid-March to expedite the ratification of the trade pact by the end of June, and that started his political fiasco in the first place. On several occasions since March 23, Ma said he would like to talk with students to resolve the political impasse. However, the political gridlock seems unlikely to end soon, as Ma is duplicitous and persists in evading and defying their demands.
While the students have called for a citizens’ constitutional conference, Ma responded with a national economic conference scheduled for June. He also refused to withdraw the trade pact from legislature as demanded by the students. He contended that failure to approve it would harm Taiwan’s credibility, impede Taiwan’s competitiveness with regional rivals like South Korea, and hinder Taiwan’s chance of joining regional economic organizations.
Ma’s ‘no exit strategy’
In a meeting with former AIT chairman Richard Bush on April 1, President Ma declared that “those who interfere with public function or willfully damage and forcibly occupy public properties shall be subject to the law.” To implement the “get tough” tactics, the government now seeks to prosecute more than 200 students, including two bright and charismatic leaders Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, who seized the LY chamber on March 18 and their brief invasion of the Executive Yuan (the Cabinet building) on March 23.
King Pu-tsung, new head of the National Security Council, and also known to be Ma’s alter ego, is reported to have told Ma’s inner circles in early April that political deadlock will end in two weeks.
Can President Ma, suffering from a deep crisis of public trust and lacking leadership legitimacy, resorts to legal persecution to end the students’ protest? Why is he so obstinate, unwilling or unable to comprehend their demands? Will his “get tough” tactic infuriate further the protesters and fire up their crusade?
Despite his disclaimer, Ma seems to pay serious attention to Beijing’s position, as a Chinese official has urged Taiwan to continue pursuing the service trade agreement. A spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs office told reporters in Beijing on March 26 that “compatriots on both sides of the strait aren’t willing to see cross-strait economic cooperation be interfered with.” Rightly or wrongly, Ma seems to believe that Taiwan’s conclusion of the trade pact is a “must” if he hopes to attend the APEC meeting in Beijing this November and facilitate a historic summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
According a source in Beijing, however, a meeting with Ma is not the Chinese leader’s top priority.
In Beijing’s calculation, Ma is already a lame duck president and unable to engage in substantive political dialogue on such vital issues as mutual confidence-building measures and the cross-strait peace accord that Xi wants wants. To save Ma’s face, Beijing has not flatly said no. Instead, it has stipulated three conditions that Ma may find them hard to swallow. Namely, the meeting should not take place in an international setting(that will rule out the APEC); the venue of the meeting should be inside China(that will exclude any third country like Singapore, and not even Hong Kong or Macau); and the meeting will be between the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the Chairman of the KMT(contrary to President Ma’s wish to have the summit between the two heads of state).
Beijing’s search for alternatives
Chinese officials are closely monitoring the developments in Taiwan. They are apprehensive that Taiwan’s “Sun Flower Movement” could inspire Hong Kong’s students to emulate, as scores of them were in Taipei to take part in the protest rally last Month, and that the advocates of Taiwan independence and Hong Kong independence could join hands to promote their common cause in the years to come. Nevertheless, what Beijing worries most is that, as Ma’s regime has alienated the public so much, there is a real danger Taiwan’s voters could reject KMT candidates for mayor and county commissioners in coming elections in November and bring the opposition Democratic Progressive Party(DPP) back to power in the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2016.
Rather than sticking to a lost cause, Beijing appears to be looking for and cultivating alternatives to Ma. It has hand-picked Sean Lien to run in the race for the mayor’s office in Taipei. Sean’s father is former vice-president and ex-KMT chairman Chan Lien, who opened up the KMT-CCP rapprochement in 2005 and enjoys full confidence of the Communist leadership. If he is elected mayor of Taiwan’s capital (and this is a big if as he must win the KMT’s primary first and then defeat the candidates of other parties), Sean Lien would become Beijing’s vital link to the KMT leadership nucleus. Moreover, the capital city provides him a strategic power base and huge resources to contend for the top government position. As a matter of fact, both President Ma and his predecessor Chen Shui-bien were mayors of Taipei and ran successfully for the office of presidency.
In addition to Sean Lien, Beijing has also in mind Eric Chu, mayor of New Taipei City, Taiwan’s largest municipality with a population of 3.8 million. Previously Chu was vice-premier in the Cabinet and commissioner of Taoyuan County. He is up for reelection in November and is widely seen as a strong KMT candidate for president in 2016. To strengthen ties with Chu, Beijing has reached out to his father-in-law Kao Yu-jen, a veteran KMT official ,and invited Kao’s 21 Century Foundation (a think-tank in Taipei) to co-sponsor a Peace Forum, a track II conference, in Shanghai last October for a dialogue on the cross-strait political relations. The forum, to be convened again in Taiwan in December, showcases Beijing’s united front operation in outreach and co-optation of Taiwan’s elites and influential people.
During the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012, at Beijing’s behest, quite a few Taiwan business tycoons campaigned openly for President Ma’s reelection. Moreover, tens of thousands of Taiwan businesspeople in China flew home via 375 charter flights to vote presumably for Ma and the KMT legislative candidates.
In light of this successful experience, Beijing’s officials in charge of Taiwan affairs can be expected to double their efforts in the elections of 2014 and 2016 to win important offices and shape Taiwan’s political process to their liking.
If the “Sun Flower Movement” is any guide, there are signs of hope that the youth and increasingly people from all walks of life in Taiwan are enlightened to see through the communists’ gambit to control Taiwan’s economy and polity and will not allow Beijing to take Taiwan for granted. Taiwan belongs to the community of democracies and will stand up and fight for its freedoms and independence. Equally important, Beijing’s evil design to undermine Taiwan’s democratic system should be exposed and condemned in the international community, and Taiwanese people should call upon the United States and other democracies to join our fight for common values.
Parris Chang is a professor emeritus of political science at Penn State University and chief executive of the Taiwan Institute for Political, Economic and Strategic Studies.