TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Mass street demonstrations are expected Saturday in Taiwan over growing anger against perceived bullying by its militarily and economically more powerful rival, China.
The advocacy group Formosa Alliance predicts tens of thousands of people will gather for its demonstration in central Taipei. Some protesters are expected to push the Taiwan government for more action on China. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party is organizing its own demonstration in southern Taiwan, a party spokesman said.
China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and insists the island will someday fall under its flag. They have been separately ruled since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. But Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen rejects Beijing’s precondition for any dialogue, specifically the acknowledgement that both sides belong to a single China, thus freezing talks since Tsai took office in 2016.
China has followed up over the past two years with military exercises near Taiwan, a cut in tourism to the island and, officials in Taiwan believe, payments for five countries to recognize Beijing diplomatically instead of Taipei.
“These situations make Taiwanese people feel they need to stand up and say ‘no’ to China,” alliance spokesman Kenny Chung said.
Formosa Alliance advocates an eventual voter referendum on Taiwan’s constitutional independence from China, which would be more than today’s de facto autonomy as well as a red line for Beijing. The action group calls the current referendum law restrictive.
The alliance also wants the government in Taipei to use “Taiwan” rather than terms more agreeable to Beijing on its masthead in international organizations.
Taiwan’s ruling party, which also leans toward greater Taiwan autonomy, will hold its demonstration with the slogan “oppose annexation, protect Taiwan.”
Some of the first group’s protesters will probably vent at China over “bullying,” while others will ask that Tsai’s government ensure that relations at least do not worsen, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei.
“As the days slowly pass and after more information comes out, there is no shortage of people who slowly awaken and realize that this matter isn’t so simple,” Huang said.
Most Taiwan protests are peaceful, but some turned violent in 2008 when Chinese officials visited the island for talks.
Taiwanese are particularly angry about the loss of diplomatic allies to China since 2016, said George Hou, mass communications lecturer at I-Shou University in Taiwan.
In recent years, Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Panama and Sao Tome and Principe have switched sides to China. Taiwan’s foreign ministry says China offered those countries money to switch sides.
China has further rattled Taiwan by passing its aircraft carrier through the 160 kilometer-wide strait that separates them and flying military planes just outside Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.
Since 2016, China has also cut back on tourism to Taiwan that reached a peak of 3.4 million trips in 2015. That change shows that China can “feed an appetite” and then “strangle your neck” when unhappy, Hou said.
“I think people over around age 30 are actually clear about today’s relations between Taiwan and China,” Hou said. “I think they’re unwilling to sell out their own country’s sovereignty to fill their stomachs. There’s no meaning in that.”
The two sides signed more than 20 deals under Taiwan’s previous president, Ma Ying-jeou, from 2008 to 2016 as Ma’s government agreed to the one-China dialogue condition. But many Taiwanese felt he edged dangerously close to China.
China will bristle at the Saturday demonstrations, analysts expect, and they might accuse protesters of stirring up anti-Beijing sentiment ahead of Taiwan’s midterm local elections. Voters on Nov. 24 will pick mayors and county magistrates, some backed by a party that takes a more conciliatory view toward Beijing.
But Beijing might stand back to avoid perceptions that it is trying to influence the elections. It will probably say little unless the demonstrations take an unexpected turn, said Gratiana Jung, senior political researcher with the Yuanta-Polaris Research Institute think tank in Taipei.
Demonstration organizers might not see as many people as they hope, Jung added. Even though younger Taiwanese don’t like China’s actions, she said, a lot are more focused on quality of life than politics.
“If Taiwan’s economy doesn’t change too soon, a lot of young people will leave, but they won’t necessarily go to mainland China, they might go to countries in Southeast Asia,” Jung said. “Their priority is survival. When you talk policy that’s what it’s about.”