Taiwan Protests Engulfing Beijing

Over the weekend, citizens from around Taiwan converged on their capital of Taipei for demonstrations over a trade agreement with China. On Saturday, a few thousand citizens rallied to support the beleaguered President Ma Ying-jeou as he pushed for ratification of the unpopular pact. On Sunday, more than a hundred thousand citizens—estimates ranged from 116,000 to 700,000—turned out to “write history,” opposing the deal and supporting students who had taken over the legislature last month.

On the evening of Tuesday, March 18th, students broke into the Legislative Yuan and blocked the entrances with chairs. At the time, they said they would leave by the following Friday, but they have since decided to stay and remain in place. 

The takeover occurred a day after the first reading of the Cross-Strait Service in Trade Agreement, which would open 80 sectors to China. Students felt Ma, by pushing the pact through the legislature without deliberation, had broken his pledge to permit a full airing. On Saturday, Ma agreed to a line-by-line review of the now-stalled deal but did not promise to withdraw it from consideration. Ma also gave his blessing to a new mechanism that would increase scrutiny of trade agreements with China.

China trade deals are increasingly unpopular in Taiwan. There is a perception among many that Ma’s cross-strait agreements have benefited China more than the island republic. Polls show most Taiwan citizens want the services pact to undergo a full examination in the legislature. China is already Taiwan’s largest trade partner.

“I want the students to leave the Legislature,” said Chang Wei-feng, a 24-year-old from the central city of Taichung, to the New York Times. “You can’t use this sort of occupation in the middle of a democratic process.” Civil disobedience in a democratic society is always controversial, but in this case it was undeniably effective. Ma has lost trust across society—his approval rating fell to 9 percent late last year—especially as his government has seemed to undermine civil liberties. Appearing to ram the services pact through the legislature turned out to be the last straw for many.

The seizure of the legislature took most everyone by surprise. Many in the opposition had been privately grumbling for years that young Taiwanese did not seem to care about cross-strait politics or even the future of their country. Overnight, that changed.

Or maybe it only seemed that way. “My answer was that it was impossible to see the inside clearly, to witness the true spirit of the society and its potential—impossible because everything was forged,” Vaclav Havel wrote in 2003, trying to explain how he always thought he could change his country’s regime, even while it appeared mighty. “In such circumstances, no one can perceive the internal, underground movements and processes that are occurring. No one can determine the size of the snowball needed to initiate the avalanche leading to the disintegration of the regime.” 

Ma, for all his hard-line tactics, has not been running a regime, and the Sunflower Movement, as the demonstrations are now called, has yet to produce a substantive victory. Nonetheless, from seemingly nowhere a handful of students have galvanized a society and within days have changed almost every political calculus on the island. Ma, trying to move Taiwan closer to China, had pushed too hard, and now the process of reconciliation with Beijing, which was never entirely popular in Taiwan, looks like it is quickly moving in reverse.

And if Beijing thinks it has problems in Taiwan, it could see disobedience spread to Hong Kong, where the government has also been more mindful of currying favor with Chinese leaders than reflecting popular opinion at home. Activists in that city, which is a Special Administration Region of the People’s Republic, are now thinking of occupying the Legislative Council, their own legislature.

There is now resistance in the air, at least around China’s periphery, and Beijing leaders must be concerned that it will soon spread to their own domain.

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