• Fri
  • Dec 26, 2014
  • Updated: 9:59pm
As I see it
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 March, 2014, 12:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 March, 2014, 12:21pm

Why a little-understood trade agreement upsets so many in Taiwan


Born in Hong Kong, Jason is a globe-trotter who spent his entire adult life in Europe, the United States and Canada before settling back in his birthplace to rediscover his roots. He is a full-time lawyer and a freelance writer who raves and rants about Hong Kong and its people. Jason is the bestselling author of HONG KONG State of Mind and No City for Slow Men. Follow him on Twitter @jasonyng.

They call it the Sunflower Revolution. Last Tuesday, scores of university students stormed into the legislature in Taipei and took over the premises. Their grievance? Kuomintang, the country’s ruling party, tried to ratify a controversial trade agreement with mainland China without proper review by lawmakers. A few days later, a smaller group raided the cabinet building but were later removed by riot police. In all, over 10,000 people participated in the largest student-led protest in the country’s 65-year history.

Things are relatively tame in the second largest city Kaohsiung. Around 200 people – students, taxi drivers, store owners and office workers – congregated outside Kuomintang’s local office on Jianguo First Road. That’s where my brothers and I found ourselves this Sunday. We took pictures with our big cameras and chanted slogans with the crowd. The organisers spotted us and invited their “supporters from Hong Kong” to say a few words on stage. We thanked them for asking but politely declined. We told them our Mandarin isn’t very good. In truth, we didn’t know enough about the trade pact to say anything intelligent.

As it turned out, neither do most people in Taiwan. False rumors about the trade pact abound. The fear that mainlanders will be allowed to buy their way into Taiwan, for instance, turned out to be misplaced. The agreement does not confer either citizenship or permanent residency. It all goes to show how little public discussion – and proper consultation – there has been over the agreement, which takes us back to what triggered the student protest in the first place: the government’s unilateral move to push through a contentious bill without a line-by-line review.

So what’s this agreement and what’s in it?

Formally known as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), the pact was signed in Shanghai in June 2013. It is one of two major sequels (the other one being the not-yet-signed “Agreement on Trade in Goods”) to the high-level, largely symbolic Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) inked in 2010. CSSTA is all about opening up the service industry in both countries. It aims at creating cross-strait investment opportunities in dozens of service-related sectors (64 in Taiwan and 80 in China), such as banking, healthcare, tourism, films and telecommunications. Among other things, CSSTA will allow qualified professionals in mainland China to apply for short-term (three-year) visas to work in Taiwan, and vice versa. Mainland corporations, such as banks and mobile service providers, will be able to set up branches and offices in Taiwan or purchase stakes in Taiwanese companies within the permitted industries, and vice versa.

CSSTA is long on commitments but short on details. Exactly how many visas will be issued each year and what level of foreign investment is permitted will be the subject of further negotiations. Implementation is to be monitored and specifics are to be worked out in the years to come. So while CSSTA is a meatier follow-up to ECFA, there is still a way to go before the rubber actually hits the road.

Neither the lack of understanding nor the lack of details about the trade pact, however, has stopped people from condemning it. It is so for two reasons. First, the public is offended by not so much what is in the agreement as the way their government has tried to pull a fast one on them. President Ma Ying-jeou’s attempt to slip the bill under the radar screen is just another confirmation that he is more concerned about salvaging his tattered legacy than looking out for his country. CSSTA was intended to be the stone that kills two political birds: on the one hand, it is a step closer to the economic integration that the China-friendly Ma has been engineering. On the other hand, it is a badly needed jolt to the languishing economy for which he is blamed. But everything has now backfired. The Sunflower Revolution has not only turned back the clock on cross-strait relations, but also taken a further toll on Ma’s dwindling popularity. His approval rating has been hovering at a pitiful 9%, the lowest among leaders in the developed world.

The second reason has to do with the natural suspicion of a unification-obsessed China. Many Taiwanese view ECFA and CSSTA as baby steps in Beijing’s quiet, carefully planned annexation of the renegade island. Bit by bit, mainland Chinese companies backed by the Communist machine (to whom money is no object) will buy up Taiwanese assets and put the country’s economy and national security at risk. The dubious benefits of a hastily-drafted trade agreement are far too high a price to pay for the country’s autonomy. And people don’t need to look far. This kind of creeping economic imperialism is already happening to their cousins in Hong Kong, where signs of gradual Sinofication are everywhere. Before they know it, Hong Kong – and Taiwan for that matter – will become the next Crimea.

There is no telling how much longer the student protestors will stay, or be allowed to stay, in the legislature. Two days ago, Ma Ying-jeou agreed to hold talks with student leaders to try to end the standoff. One proposal is to set up a mechanism for the legislature to scrutinise the implementation of CSSTA and future trade agreements with mainland China. Whatever the outcome is, the saga has been the best thing that happened to the Democratic Progressive Party (the main opposition) since Chen Shui-bian won the presidential election in 2000. Here in Hong Kong, we watch the unfolding events in Taipei with interest and envy. With our own political crisis brewing over the 2017 chief executive election, we wonder if our university students will be as brave as their counterparts in Taipei. We wonder if sunflowers will ever bloom in Hong Kong.


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This article is now closed to comments

When we Hongkongers moved our factories to Shenzhen or upper north decades ago, mainland Chinese did not complaine. When Taiwanese set up their companies in Shanghai, Suzhou and many other places, there were no complaints neither. What is this term 'Sinofication' Jason mentions, I really do not understand what it means?!! May be Jason forgets the earth is flat nowadays. Money flows to where they can maximize their profit, not to ---fication some places because of some political motivation. When I read his bio, then I understand. Jason is a lawyer, not a economist. People like him tends to look at things with their tinted glasses. These people think there are political motivation behind every door. As a Hongkonger, the last thing we want is to have something like that happen in Hong Kong. Students, backed by politicians, who are not rational and do not listen to any reasons, just charge forward and want the whole society charge along with them. Our fathers and mothers have built Hong Kong into an international city with law and reasons. The last thing we want is to become another Thailand, Philippine and in this case, Taiwan.
Are the students in Taiwan against free trade in principles or simply against China? If it is the former then they may as well shut Taiwan completely from outside the world and just not trade at all. But if it is the latter, then it is merely political. Through out this campaign of theirs, students haven't presented with any substantive evidence how this trade pact will harm Taiwan economically.
"we wonder if our university students will be as brave as their counterparts in Taipei". I don't think the operative word is 'brave'. To charge ahead without thinking is brave, to do with conviction doesn't require bravery. The Taiwan students according to the writer don't know what the trade pact is about, but protest nevertheless. I hope HK students will not just be 'brave' but will know what the issues are before they take to the streets.
It is funny during arguments, people ask where are you from, which is nothing to do with the objectives of the subject we argue. But I answer you anyway. My family is farmers in New Territory even before the British took over. My HKID has three stars, which indicates I am the real locals, not immigrants during the wars from China. But do I have the right to tell the other Hongkongers or Chinese to go back to China? I do not think so. Whatever is happening in HK is the result of globalization, not the so-called "sinofication" Jason described. If you have the opportunity to travel to Europe and some middle East countries, and you can see the situation over there are much worse than Hong Kong or Taiwan. Young people cannot find jobs. Governments are much corrupted than ours, etc. I am not saying Hong Kong government should not address those issues you described: unchecked tourism or immigration, etc. But we need to understand clearly what are the real problems, then we can find solutions. It is easier to blame on other people of our problems. But it will only side track our focus but will not really solve the real problems.
great article!
The Taiwanese students are genuinely concerned about mainland Chinese interests taking over Taiwan by sheer volume only, no matter the field. Those are legitimate concerns that are manipulated by politicking politicians and their varied media minions. and being students, they have both the enthusiasm and the lack of perspective proper to youth.
Sadly, they are twenty years too late, Taiwan cannot do without China any more.
Do you live in Hong Kong? Look what signification is doing to Hong Kong. What was good in Hong Kong is diminishing and what is bad is increasing. More and more autonomy is being given up and tensions are high because of unchecked tourism and imigration. The central government is trying to turn Hon Kongers into loyal citizens and is interfering in economic and social aspects of all of our lives. OTOH Taiwan not only survived, but prospered for nearly 70 years without even being a state and having no formal status. I am sure they will be fine whether or not this pact goes through. I think the biggest problem with the pact is the principles that it is based on. It assumes the economic status quo in China will remain unchanged and China will keep growing economically and will be Taiwan's only chance at new growth. However, the China experiment is not yet complete and more and more economists are questioning whether it will succeed at all or even result in disaster.


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