Saturday 29 March 2014

Occupying Taiwan’s parliament

Goodwill among student protesters a contrast to legislators’ rowdy fights
By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 28 Mar 2014

''IF YOU cannot tell where the rubbish should go, I will stuff your head inside!''

The cheerful threat on the hand-scrawled notice, perched above a collection point for carefully sorted trash, is probably the most outwardly autocratic sign in Taiwan's parliament.

The legislative chamber has been occupied by students and other activists since early last week in protest over a service trade pact with China.

But there are no rowdy fights that Taiwanese legislators are notorious for. Instead, there is a display of camaraderie and goodwill, with the occupiers holding small-group discussions in the day and sing-a-longs at night before bedding down amid the pews where lawmakers usually sit.

Near the podium under founding father Sun Yat-sen's giant portrait where the Speaker sits, daily necessities are neatly arranged for whoever needs them. To show solidarity, most wear the same luridly green or red plastic slippers that came from the same donor.

As the occupation moves into its 11th day and as the initial euphoria from capturing the parliament begins to flag, the students are also learning to grapple with all the messiness of the democracy they say they are championing.

It is just one of the reasons a meeting with President Ma Ying-jeou, an invitation he extended on Tuesday, is unlikely to happen in the next few days. Neither does the stand-off look like it is going to end any time soon.

In fact, the students kicked things up a notch yesterday by calling for a protest march on Sunday, which will end in a rally in front of the Presidential Office.

They also escalated their demands for both meeting Mr Ma as well as leaving the legislature.

To vacate it, they have two conditions: One is to withdraw the trade agreement to open up service sectors on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, which they say was the product of ''black box politics'' - inked with China in secret and approved by a legislature committee early last week without the clause-by-clause review that was promised. The other condition is for all legislators to support a new law to establish a mechanism that monitors future negotiations with Beijing. The ruling Kuomintang has rejected this.

Meanwhile, the proposed meeting with Mr Ma - which initially got a favourable response from the students - now has more roadblocks. They want him to agree to discuss their demands. They also want him to lift the party whip on KMT legislators.

The students believe that they are engaging in ''a more genuine exercise in democracy'' than its elected occupants.

Taking a break from her organic chemistry textbook, undergraduate Duan Shun-hsing, 18, said: ''Mr Ma is the President, while also controlling the legislature as chairman of the ruling party. He has too much power and is trying to ride roughshod over us.

''So we are representing people's power here instead.''

And indeed, in living out their democratic ideals, the 100-plus students split into groups of 10 to 20, earnestly discussing various issues such as the Ma meeting. Suggestions are collated, then passed on to a higher council of leaders.

Differences and dissenters do exist. Some want to know if they are being too hardline. Others wonder whether the call for a supervisory mechanism is ''too idealistic'', as geology undergraduate Henry Hsu, 21, put it.

Activist Linda Chuang, 32, who left the chamber after spending a night there, wants more accountability from student leaders in explaining further the ultimate decisions. Student leader Lin Fei-fan tells The Straits Times that the council strives to seek consensus via communication: ''It is key that all views are considered.''

And as some exit, they are replaced by some of the thousands of supporters sitting outside. The unceasing flow of fresh blood is key to keeping the occupation going.

Other factors include Mr Ma's unpopularity, with his approval rating now at 9 per cent. Already, both opposition and KMT politicians are carefully positioning themselves for elections this year and in 2016.

Beyond that, the looming so-called China factor - and the anxieties engendered about its growing influence in Taiwan - has brought many to the protest.

Delivery driver Lon Long, 45, who made the long drive from southern Taiwan to volunteer at the protest, said: ''If we sign this, Taiwan is finished.''

Whatever the reasons that propel them to stay on, what seems clear is that many are in it for the long haul.

''How long will I be here? For as long as it takes,'' says Mr Hsu.

Sunflower movement dims cross-strait ties
By Ching Cheong, The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2014

TAIWAN'S Sunflower student movement will cast a long shadow on cross-strait relations between Beijing and Taipei. It will surely retard, if not reverse, the detente process that has been under way in the last six years under Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou.

Just before the students began their occupation of the Legislative Yuan, or Parliament, from March 18, bilateral ties had seen a breakthrough.

For the first time since the Kuomintang government fled the Chinese mainland to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war to the Chinese Communist Party, the governments of the two sides met officially in February. Cabinet-level officials Zhang Zhijun of China's Taiwan Affairs Office and Wang Yu-chi of Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council met in Nanjing. The two sides are now mulling over a summit between the two presidents.

However, the eruption of the Sunflower movement brings this process to a halt.

The students' rationale for staging the movement - their objection to the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) - is debatable, for the pact will benefit the island's economy greatly. It will open up the Chinese market to 80 types of services from Taiwan while Taiwan needs to open up only 64, among which many are already liberalised under its World Trade Organisation (WTO) obligations.

According to economic modelling by the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research, the pact would add US$400 million (S$503 million) to the total annual output of Taiwan's services sector, a hike of 37 per cent, and 12,000 jobs. By comparison, the mainland's export of service products to Taiwan would increase by only US$100 million, or 9 per cent, annually.

In other words, Taiwan's gain is much greater than China's.

From a purely economic standpoint, the Taiwanese should welcome an agreement heavily skewed in its favour.

However, the students object to the pact not just because they worry about the competition from Chinese businesses it will introduce to Taiwan's small and medium-sized businesses.

Their bigger fear is that it will open the way for political infiltration by China into the island, given that Beijing's ultimate aim is the unification of Taiwan with the mainland.

Thus, what appeared to be a goodwill perk for the island resulted in evoking the deep-rooted fear among Taiwanese of political integration with China. That thousands of Taiwanese have rallied outside Parliament to support the students shows the latter are not alone in their concerns.

Yet, the students have failed to see that political infiltration through the services sector - if it does take place - can hardly be avoided even without the CSSTA.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his trip to the European Union last month, won a pledge from the Europeans to support China's accession to the Really Good Friends of Services (RGF) club, a sub-group in the WTO discussing a standalone services agreement, of which Taiwan is a member. Once such a pact is signed, Taiwan's doors will be flung open to the Chinese services sector, CSSTA or not.

Many people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait also frown on the students' tactics. They kept changing and escalating their demands, first asking for a clause-by-clause review of the CCSTA, then for its complete abrogation. Now they want to not just scrap the trade deal but also overhaul the island's Constitution.

By occupying Parliament and ransacking the building of the Executive Yuan or central government, the students have shown no respect for law and order. This has greatly marred their cause and their image. Still, the Sunflower movement has very serious implications for Beijing.

First of all, it shows that the younger generation in Taiwan is averse to the idea of unification. Indicative of this is the proclamation by student leader Lin Fei-fan that "the movement redefines cross-strait relations. Henceforth, the fate of Taiwan shall be decided by 23 million Taiwanese". This sounds like a declaration of independence.

It shows that Beijing's long-term objective of peaceful unification with Taiwan is doomed to fail because few among the younger generation subscribe to such an idea.

The student movement also shows that Beijing's policy of incremental political absorption of Taiwan via economic integration has failed. Despite providing a broad range of economic benefits, it has failed to win over the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese.

In the past, this policy seemed to have worked well in softening the anti-China stance of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

In the presidential election of 2012, the DPP lost substantial votes in southern Taiwan, traditionally its stronghold, thanks to China's opening up of its vast market to agricultural products from the island's south. Bowing to the reality of China's ability to influence Taiwan's politics, a number of senior DPP leaders then made their way to the mainland to try to engage the Chinese authorities.

The latest such move was by former DPP head Tsai Ing-wen who sent a delegation to China early this year as a goodwill gesture.

Unhappy at the DPP jumping on China's bandwagon, the student protesters decided to distance themselves from all political parties. Thus, in the Sunflower movement, the DPP has found itself embarrassingly marginalised. Although some DPP leaders showed up at Parliament, the students made clear that they did not want the involvement of any political party, and the DPP leaders failed to gain control of the movement.

For Beijing, a more practical concern is, given the current crisis, the DPP is likely to win the 2016 presidential election. Since the DPP is unwilling to scrap the independence clause in its party charter, cross-strait relations will enter a chilly phase, offsetting the gains made during Mr Ma's tenure. Things will go back to square one.

This has led Professor Zhu Weidong, deputy director of the Taiwan Institute at top Chinese think-tank, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, to lament at a recent meeting in Hong Kong: "We spent the last six years just stopping Taiwan from veering towards independence, we had not succeeded in changing its course towards unification. Now we have to start all over again."

Taiwan can't escape pull of mainland economy
By Li Xueying, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2014

TAIWAN'S pineapple industry is undergoing a golden renaissance of sorts, thanks to a rush of mainland tourists with a craving for pineapple tarts.

In the southern rural county of Taitung, for instance, tea plantations are increasingly making way for pineapple fields as Taiwanese farmers cash in on rising Chinese demand for the sweet treats. In capital Taipei, confectionaries are focusing on pineapple tarts while sidelining other local delicacies.

These are small but striking examples of how the growing hordes of mainland tourists - 2.85 million of them visited Taiwan last year, a 10-fold jump from six years ago - are making themselves and their spending power felt on the island, which China claims as its own territory.

Many Hong Kongers, who have over the years seen how their city changed in order to cater to Chinese tourists, empathise with what is happening in Taiwan.

In fact, they see so many similarities that more and more of the city's activists and residents are warning Taiwan not to follow in Hong Kong's footsteps, or risk losing its own identity as reliance on China grows.

Their warnings have struck a chord in Taiwan, particularly among those protesting against a new trade pact with the mainland. The protesters from the so-called Sunflower movement occupied the legislative building for 23 days, and forced the government to look into new legislation that would put greater political oversight on such trade agreements.

It is also a message that politicians from both the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - including their likely presidential candidates in 2016 - have quickly capitalised on.

In a recent Facebook post, KMT's Mr Eric Chu cautioned against Taiwan putting "all its eggs in the same basket".

Ms Tsai Ing-wen of the pro-independence DPP went further by warning that China's economic influence over Taiwanese businesses could eventually allow Beijing to infiltrate the island's politics and media.

"Under such circumstances, we might become another Hong Kong," she told the French newspaper Le Monde.

Some of these warnings smack of political opportunism. But a number of them are legitimate. Already, many point to a more pro-China media in Taiwan after tycoon Tsai Eng-meng of the Want Want Group - which has extensive business interests in China - swept up a clutch of television stations and newspapers in recent years.

But the reality is that Taiwan, much like Hong Kong, cannot escape the gravitational pull of the Chinese economy - and cannot pick and choose the effects, whether good or bad, that come from such proximity.

China, including Hong Kong, is Taiwan's largest market, accounting for 39 per cent of its US$305 billion (S$381.5 billion) exports. Meanwhile, two-thirds of Taiwan's outward investments are in China. More Chinese companies are also investing in Taiwan, with mainland investments last year hitting US$349 million, or 6.6 per cent of all Chinese overseas investments.

Reversing these broad trends is practically impossible, regardless of which party is in charge in Taiwan.

Much has been made, for instance, of President Ma Ying-jeou's China-friendly stance.

But the fastest growth in Taiwan's exports to China was recorded during the tenure of DPP's president Chen Shui-bian. In 2000, the year he took power, China accounted for just 2.98 per cent of Taiwan's exports. This grew to 26.16 per cent by 2008, when Chen stepped down.

"It is a very high degree of reliance. But it's difficult, if not impossible, to make a U-turn now," says economist Norman Yin, in reference to entrenched supply chains in China and weak export market alternatives such as the United States and Europe.

There have been repeated calls over the years for Taiwan to lessen its reliance on its burgeoning trade with China by diversifying and tapping more deeply into South-east Asia, the island's second-largest market. Taipei is also trying to deepen its trade links with the region by seeking to partake in pacts like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that brings together the 10 Asean states and six other countries in the Asia Pacific including Japan, India and Australia.

But ironically, such efforts depend heavily on Beijing, which can use its economic and political clout to limit Taipei's international space should it choose to.

It can be no coincidence that Taiwan's two free trade agreements signed with non-diplomatic allies - New Zealand and Singapore - were inked only after Taiwan had concluded the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement with China in 2010.

Overcoming this peculiar geopolitical conundrum requires a somewhat counter-intuitive approach, as Professor Wu Yu-shan, director at the Institute of Political Science of Academia Sinica, points out.

"Beijing is like a gatekeeper," he adds. "It's tricky - we have to increase our reliance on China to decrease our reliance on it."

But while important, trade alone will not be a panacea for the stagnant Taiwanese economy.

Taiwanese companies desperately need to upgrade and build home-grown brands - as South Korea has done - that others want.

Meanwhile, relying on mainland tourists is an easy way out - tourism now accounts for 5.3 per cent of the gross domestic product - but could blind government planners to the need to diversify the economy.

Indeed, the way some Taiwanese see it, the writing is on the wall despite the recent protests against closer economic ties with China.

Just ask Mr Lai Ching-te, the mayor of Tainan. Earlier this month, he announced that his city will expand its pineapple cultivation to cash in on growing demand, including from China.

No comments:

Post a Comment