Police and protesters have been engaged in a standoff in Taiwan's legislature after students stormed the building to demand the government scrap a trade deal with China.
The protesters Wednesday knocked down a large metal gate as they entered the legislative chamber late Tuesday and were using chairs to keep out police. Authorities said several officers were slightly injured when they made a failed attempt to clear the chamber.
The students said the deal would endanger Taiwanese jobs and increase Beijing's growing influence.
Student organizer Shi Yilun told VOA that the protesters felt the ruling Kuomintang, or KMT, party has bypassed the democratic process.
“The public hearings have not taken into consideration the voice of the people, the voice of all parties, or the questions and challenges all sides have about the Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement. On the contrary, on February 17 (the KMT) did something that violated fundamental democratic procedures and was without regard to the people of Taiwan. They violated what we authorized them to do at that time. We’ve come here to take back our rights,” said Shi.
The students are upset that a government committee passed a review of the deal despite opposition protests.
KMT Policy Committee Chairman Lin Hong-chi told reporters that the protesters were the ones damaging Taiwan's democracy.
“From last night until the present moment, a portion of the populous has been misled by a small number of people with ulterior motives into occupying the Legislative Yuan. This has caused great harm to Taiwan’s democracy. How sacred are the halls of parliament. To trample on a palace of democracy is to trample on parliament, which is the same as trampling on the people,” said Lin.
Taiwan-China economic ties have been strong for years. Political relations have also grown warmer following historic high level talks last month.
Taiwan's opposition is worried about excessive Chinese influence. The opposition has vowed to vote against the trade deal, but does not have the strength to block it.
Finance Minister Chang Sheng-ford said the deal was too important for the island to pass up.
“The Cross Strait Service Trade Agreement has a stake in the nation’s prospects. Mainland China is such a big market that if we don’t sign this agreement our competitiveness will drop. How will we join regional mechanisms in the future? Everyone had better calmly consider over [this], [we] must not be influenced by ideology," said Chang.
The trade deal is part of the far-reaching Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, or ECFA, signed between Taiwan and China in 2010.
Under the subdivision of the pact now under discussion, Chinese and Taiwanese service companies would increase investments in each other's territory.
Chang Ching is a Taiwan-based research fellow at the Society for Strategic Studies. He told VOA the dangers of the deal were being overblown by some in the opposition who have their eye on elections later this year.
"Many of the impacts to the service sector in Taiwan are overstated by the opposition party. But that's just the reality of life. Because in the opposition party, you will definitely find some who want to mobilize the public in order to get support (and) in order to get political leverage," he said.
Chang said the opposition did have a legitimate complaint about the way in which the ruling party decided to review the agreement.
"Originally, [the KMT] promised they would review the agreement - article by article, item by item, clause by clause. But eventually, they found another way to interpret that. [They said] since it is an administrative agreement, it can automatically be passed," he said.
The debate over the trade deal comes as many in Taiwan are concerned over steadily improving political ties with China.
Last month, Taiwan's top official on China affairs, Wang Yu-chi, visited the mainland, where he held Taiwan's first ever political talks with China.
Taiwan split from China following a civil war in 1949. Beijing still regards it as a breakaway province that will someday be reunified with the mainland.
Economic ties have improved in recent years, especially after the somewhat Beijing-friendly Ma Ying-jeou was elected president in 2008 and re-elected in 2012.
Hongshen Zhao contributed to this report from Taipei and William Gallo contributed from Washington.
(This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Mandarin service.)