Fears over 'democracy and jobs'

Students angered by KMT's reversal on review of trade pact, which they fear will hurt economy

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 4:13am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 4:13am

The students who took over Taiwan's legislature fear democracy on the island is at risk and the free trade pact with the mainland will lead to fewer jobs.

It's the island's first large student-led protest in the social media age, and a challenge they face is how to next co-ordinate their supporters while avoiding further violent clashes with police.

"We decided it was the time for us to take some action to counter such a shameless and rude trampling on Taiwan's democracy by the KMT legislators," said Chen Wei-ting, one of the several student leaders, who planned the protest, referring to the ruling Kuomintang party.

The protest, though it erupted suddenly on Tuesday, has been gathering pace for months. Almost immediately after the mainland and Taiwan signed the deal in June, doubts arose among young people, the main opposition Democratic Progressive Party and several civic groups that it would hurt the island's economy.

"Concerns about possible negative impact from the controversial cross-strait trade service pact and the breach of an agreement by the ruling Kuomintang over how to review the pact are the major reasons behind the latest students' wrath," said George Tsai Wei, a political science professor at Chinese Culture University in Taipei.

Pressure mounted for the island's president, Ma Ying-jeou, and his Kuomintang, to submit the pact to a careful scrutiny by the legislature. The KMT signed a letter with the DPP in September pledging an article by article review, but on Monday announced a U-turn.

Several civic groups staged a protest outside the legislature on Tuesday. About 200 students from various local universities broke into the chamber through three side doors around 9pm after briefly scuffling with police. They succeeded in occupying the chamber by stacking chairs and other pieces of furniture to block the entrances.

"In the beginning, I didn't think we could make it and I was also worried that our action might result in the injuries of our fellow students, but we made it," said Chen, a key cadre of the Black Island Nation Youth Front, which formed in September to organise opposition.

Another protest leader, Lin Fei-fan, from National Taiwan University, said that after they occupied the legislature, they set up a "March 18 Occupation Action Committee" to devise strategies on how to deal with police, maintain order inside the chamber, and reach out to supporters.

Taiwan has been generally tolerant to various student movements since the "wild lily student movement" in March 1990 that were instrumental in moving Taiwan towards democracy, including elections in the legislature and for the president in 1996.

But this week's protest has been helped by the power of social media networking, with supporters exchanging updates and messages of support through smartphones. "Unlike previous student movements, which relied on traditional news media to make their claims known, the protest this time has made best use of social media networking, which gives them faster responses from the public," said Sara Lin, a legislative aide for DPP legislator Hsiao Bi-khim.

Observers and Taiwanese media said the protest, dubbed "sunflower movement," had been generally peaceful, save for the handful of initial confrontations with police.

Speaker Wang Jing-pyng's repeated calls for self-restraints from both students and police.

Though Ma has insisted the pact be passed before the end of the legislative session in July, he has not asked authorities to forcibly remove the students from the chamber, asking only Wang to deal with the issue himself.

The pact is a follow-up to the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement signed by the mainland and Taiwan in 2010. Beijing has repeatedly pressed Taipei to pass the deal. "If the agreement is unable to be passed, it will not only affect further expansion of economic co-operation … but will also create negative impact on Taiwan's economic development, which would only hurt Taiwanese businesses and people," said Fan Liqing, spokeswoman of the State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office in December.