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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Student protests expose Taiwan’s anxiety over China

As a nation in political limbo and economically becalmed, democratic institutions are all that Taiwan has left to resist the giant sucking sound from across the straits, writes Jaime Kenny

On April 10, hundreds of students who had spent nearly a month occupying Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan marched out of the building with heads held high, carrying sunflowers and claiming victory.

They had originally occupied the parliament in protest at attempts to force a trade deal with China through the legislature by the ruling Kuomintang party (KMT), led by Ma Ying-jeou, the president. The Cross Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) planned to open up 64 sectors of Taiwan’s service economy to direct investment from the mainland, including banking, telecoms, tourism and health care.

The deal is the latest in a series designed to enable Taiwan to revive its economy by tapping into the economic powerhouse across the straits, a process central to the economic programme of Mr Ma and the Kuomintang, which has ruled the island since 2008.

Opponents of the deal claim that a flood of money and business from China will crowd out local entrepreneurs and say that the whole thing was stitched up in a series of closed door meetings held on the mainland last year. But behind these specific complaints lies something much bigger: a widespread anxiety that closer economic ties with China will inevitably lead to de facto political merger and the degradation of Taiwan’s indigenous democratic institutions. When Mr Ma and the Kuomintang talk of the prosperity to be found in a greater China marketplace, many in Taiwan simply hear a giant sucking sound.

It was to alleviate these concerns that the government promised widespread public consultation and item-by-item approval of the CSSTA’s numerous clauses. That process ended when the government finally lost patience and announced that the deal would be pushed through the legislature as a whole on March 21.

It was to prevent this that the occupiers moved. In an audaciously planned and brilliantly executed swoop, hundreds of protesters suddenly converged on Taiwan’s parliament on the night of March 18. Many formed a protective cordon outside as others scaled the walls of the building, broke in and barricaded themselves inside the legislative chamber, successively resisting increasingly desperate police attempts to weed them out.

This sort of direct action is not unknown in Taiwanese politics, which is sometimes conducted as a kind of civic guerrilla warfare between the KMT and its opponents in the pan-Green alliance, led by the Democratic Progressive Party. Microphones are seized, rostrums stormed and vital committee rooms occupied by lawmakers intent on physically blocking the passage of legislation. The difference this time was that wider civil society decided to join the fun.

While clearly a product of careful planning, the occupation did not originate in any existing Taiwanese political group. Indeed, for the first few days it did not even have a name, until a supportive local florist gave the occupiers a box of sunflowers, symbolic of open government. It was at this point that the occupiers assumed a collective identity as the Sunflower Student Movement.

If there was uncertainty about who the occupiers were and what they represented, that’s par for the course for Taiwan, which geopolitics has left mired in existential ambiguity. Taiwan is a nation in everything but diplomatic recognition.

Its relations with China are governed by a so-called 1992 consensus, in which both parties agree that there is one China but agree to differ about what that means. It is ruled by a traditionally pro-unification party which now formally renounces reunification. The opposition DPP was likewise formed to establish de jure Taiwanese independence, but has now stepped back from that goal.

There are good political reasons for this. Polls consistently show that the Taiwanese public overwhelmingly prefers the status quo, seeking to avoid either being swallowed by China or provoking it into the invasion threatened by former Chinese president Hu Jintao if Taiwan were to declare full independence.

For his part, president Ma can point to the fact that he and his government have been elected twice on a programme of developing greater economic ties to China. Yet even as these ties have grown, the number of people on the island identifying as solely Taiwanese rather than both Chinese and Taiwanese has reached unprecedented levels. For the Taiwanese public, it seems, hedging is a basic political strategy. Things might be different if more Sino-Taiwanese trade had actually morphed into greater general prosperity. But a Taiwanese graduate in 2014 can expect to start work on a salary that is less than a graduate could have expected in 1992.

The occupiers of the Sunflower movement marched out of parliament after securing an agreement that before the CSSTA goes before parliament a law will be passed to ensure that all measures designed to bring Taiwan and the mainland closer will be subject to greater public monitoring. They also plan to take the case against the treaty to the streets in a series of public meetings designed around legislative elections later this year.

It’s difficult to say whether public sentiment, which was broadly supportive during the occupation, will stay with them. But it’s easy to understand their focus on what they say is a creeping decay in Taiwan’s democracy.

As a nation in political limbo and economically becalmed, democratic institutions are all that Taiwan has left to resist the giant sucking sound from across the straits.

Jamie Kenny is a UK-based journalist and writer specialising in China