Taiwan’s peaceful democracy has been wracked by violent protest over the last few days in response to the passage of the Service Trade Agreement with China, a follow-up agreement to the Economic Cooperation Framework agreement (ECFA) passed in 2010. The violence surrounding the events has left many Taiwanese citizens scratching their heads, wondering how this could have happened in a country known for its friendly and peaceful society. Many wonder what has happened to the democracy in Taiwan, and what this means for its future.
The protests began on Thursday, March 18 when a group of students entered the Legislative Yuan in Taipei around 8pm and occupied the chamber. The occupation began as a response to the announcement by the administration of president Ma Ying-jeou the previous day that the agreed upon line-by-line review of the Service Trade Agreement had reached its expiration and the agreement would pass through the legislature without review. By the end of the day, over 300 people had entered the building and occupied the chamber.
The politics of Taiwan are divided between the Kuomintang party and the Democratic Progressive Party, respectively known as the blue and green parties. The ruling Kuomintang is the more conservative of the two, often shying away from any talk of Taiwanese independence and seen as more conciliatory to the People’s Republic of China. It is under the leadership of the Kuomintang that the first government-to-government meetings between Taiwanese ministers and their counterparts in the Chinese government occurred since the end of the Chinese civil war. Their leadership has also seen the expansion of Chinese trade and tourism in Taiwan, and a dampening of talks of a Taiwanese nation.
The Service Trade agreement opens up 64 sectors of the Taiwanese economy to direct Chinese investment, a move which is seen by many of these protestors as being one step to close to integration of the two economies. In my previous article, I wrote that the much feared takeover of the Taiwanese economy by China has yet to happen, and that still seems to hold true. However, the ways in which the KMT party pushed the agreement through the legislature, by executive order rather than open debate, appears to many Taiwanese citizens to be a quite tyrannical move.
One can only imagine what the Ma administration is trying to accomplish by insisting that there be no compromise and that the agreement will pass through the legislature as previously planned. The pressures on the Ma administration by the Taiwanese population may not be as strong as their suspected desire to impress Beijing enough to have a face-to-face meeting between Ma and Chinese president Xi Jinping.
If indeed Ma wants to go down in the history books as a hero, he is certainly pursuing an odd course on his way to fame. Ma’s domestic approval ratings have already hovered at around 10% for most of the last year before the protests even began. Yet, despite his abysmally low popularity, Ma and Premier Jiang Yi-huah thought it a good idea to send in the riot police on the night of Sunday, March 23 to break up the protests. There were reports of over 100 injuries to unarmed students, reports, and citizens following the incidence of violence.
I have heard several critiques of the protestors, that young students cannot possibly understand the complexity of these issues, and that most of the demonstrators there have little knowledge of the real stakes involved. Many people I have spoken to believe these young protestors are just there to be with their friends. While it’s true that the sunflower painting, arm band making, and constant Instagraming of selfies may seem juvenile in comparison to more violent protests going on in Crimea or Bangkok, this is an important distinction of Taiwanese culture not to be trivialized. Taiwanese society is characteristically nonviolent, the jovial events going on at these protests are a result of a Taiwanese shared consciousness that values peace and social gathering. It is these values that the Ma administration seems to be so out of touch with, and the reasons that the use of water cannons and riot police is so shocking to observers in Taiwan.
At this point, it seems that the protests have become about more than just Sinophobia or concern over ECFA and the Trade Services Agreement. Other Taiwanese groups, like the strong anti-nuclear and gay marriage movements, have also joined in the protests to voice their concerns and oppose the administration. Taiwan is still a very young democracy, less than 3o years old. The protests are now about the vision Taiwan has for its self-determination and the way it wants its democracy and society to be shaped for future generations.
The KMT will almost assuredly suffer severe political backlash as a result of the way the current administration has responded to the demands of the student protestors. Taiwanese politics are notoriously divided and at times raucous, especially where the issue of Taiwanese independence and Taiwan’s relationship with China is concerned. The opposition party has a chance to seize on this political capital and vindicate everything these student protestors have been saying, turning this from a fringe student movement into a mainstream political change that will drive the KMT out of office. Regardless of what happens in the halls of the government, however, the anger and hurt associated with this Sunflower movement will almost certainly continue far into the future, spelling only sadness for Taiwan’s young, fragile democracy.