More than 100,000 people packed the streets outside Taiwan’s presidential office Sunday to call for scrapping a trade agreement with China. But the mostly younger protesters were less worried about doing business with powerful political rival Beijing than they are fed up with the way deals are made at home.
The turnout was estimated between 100,000 and 400,000 as protesters filled boulevards and metro stations in central Taipei, wearing black shirts as a symbol of what they call poor transparency. They demanded that their president scrap a pact with China to liberalize investment in each other’s service sectors.
Some demonstrators fear Beijing will leverage the pact to push self-ruled Taiwan into uniting with China as a single country. China has seen Taiwan as its own since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s.
The content of the deal aside, most are angry that President Ma Ying-jeou's government signed the agreement in June without telling people more about it. Protester Mai Po-chun, a 28-year-old night school student from northern Taiwan, does not understand what’s in the agreement.
He said he does not oppose the proposed trade pact but that the problem is the government passed it before saying clearly what’s inside. He said that has caused young people to not know what lies ahead in their future. He hopes the government can clearly tell the public about every element of the pact instead of just saying at news conferences that it’s great.
Sunday’s protest follows from an occupation of parliament since March 18. Hundreds of students first blocked the podium to make legislators ratify the trade pact item by item rather than as a package. Now they want it thrown out and renegotiated.
Previous protests in Taiwan against China tie-ups have focused on perceived political threats from Beijing. But 20 deals signed under President Ma to date have lifted Taiwan’s trade, tourism and investment for local business people while creating an estimated 9,600 local jobs. Officials said the current agreement will lift Taiwan’s service sector, which is 69 percent of the economy.
Taiwan’s president has made an international name since 2008 for breaking 60 years of icy relations with China to reach the first economic, trade and investment agreements between the two countries.
Protesters now want more public review before agreements are signed, often in China and after private meetings between the two sides’ ruling parties.
Taiwanese fretted again over the lack of a clear agenda when the two sides held first-ever ministerial-level talks in February. Many also criticize President Ma for responding too slowly or curtly to domestic problems.
Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor in Taiwan, said anger boiled over this month.
“This is the result of accumulated frustration. China was the background. It’s not really the major factor,” said Lin.
The ruling Nationalist Party faces growing pressure to concede something to students occupying parliament as local elections approach later this year. But Ma’s government points to 20 public hearings on the services trade pact and a mechanism to ensure that deals with China do not hurt local enterprises. The president said he will stick by the agreement.