27 March 2014

Occupy Taipei 佔領台北


They call it the Sunflower Revolution. Last Tuesday, scores of university students stormed into the legislature in Taipei and took over the premises. Their grievance? Kuomintang (國民黨), the country’s ruling party, tried to ratify a controversial trade agreement with Mainland China without proper review by lawmakers. A few days later, a smaller group raided the cabinet building but were later removed by riot police. In all, over 10,000 people participated in the largest student-led protest in the country’s 65-year history.

Rebels with a cause


Things are relatively tame in the second largest city Kaohsiung. Around 200 people – students, taxi drivers, store owners and office workers – congregated outside Kuomintang’s local office on Jianguo First Road (建國一路). That’s where my brothers and I found ourselves this Sunday. We took pictures with our big cameras and chanted slogans with the crowd. The organizers spotted us and invited their “supporters from Hong Kong” to say a few words on stage. We thanked them for asking but politely declined. We told them our Mandarin isn’t very good. In truth, we didn’t know enough about the trade pact to say anything intelligent.

As it turned out, neither do most people in Taiwan. False rumors about the trade pact abound. The fear that Mainlanders will be allowed to buy their way into Taiwan, for instance, turned out to be misplaced. The agreement does not confer either citizenship or permanent residency. It all goes to show how little public discussion – and proper consultation – there has been over the agreement, which takes us back to what triggered the student protest in the first place: the government’s unilateral move to push through a contentious bill without a line-by-line review. 

Me, among the protestors in Kaohsiung


So what’s this agreement and what’s in it?

Formally known as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA, 服貿), the pact was signed in Shanghai in June 2013. It is one of two major sequels (the other one being the not-yet-signed “Agreement on Trade in Goods”) to the high-level, largely symbolic Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA, 兩岸經濟協議) inked in 2010. CSSTA is all about opening up the service industry in both countries. It aims at creating cross-strait investment opportunities in dozens of service-related sectors (64 in Taiwan and 80 in China), such as banking, healthcare, tourism, films and telecommunications. Among other things, CSSTA will allow qualified professionals in Mainland China to apply for short-term (three-year) visas to work in Taiwan, and vice versa. Mainland corporations, such as banks and mobile service providers, will be able to set up branches and offices in Taiwan or purchase stakes in Taiwanese companies within the permitted industries, and vice versa. 

Overwhelming opposition


CSSTA is long on commitments but short on details. Exactly how many visas will be issued each year and what level of foreign investment is permitted will be the subject of further negotiations. Implementation is to be monitored and specifics are to be worked out in the years to come. So while CSSTA is a meatier follow-up to ECFA, there is still a way to go before the rubber actually hits the road.

Neither the lack of understanding nor the lack of details about the trade pact, however, has stopped people from condemning it. It is so for two reasons. First, the public is offended by not so much what is in the agreement as the way their government has tried to pull a fast one on them. President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) attempt to slip the bill under the radar screen is just another confirmation that he is more concerned about salvaging his tattered legacy than looking out for his country. CSSTA was intended to be the stone that kills two political birds: on the one hand, it is a step closer to the economic integration that the China-friendly Ma has been engineering. On the other hand, it is a badly needed jolt to the languishing economy for which he is blamed. But everything has now backfired. The Sunflower Revolution has not only turned back the clock on cross-strait relations, but also taken a further toll on Ma’s dwindling popularity. His approval rating has been hovering at a pitiful 9%, the lowest among leaders in the developed world.

He makes Nixon look popular

The second reason has to do with the natural suspicion of a unification-obsessed China. Many Taiwanese view ECFA and CSSTA as baby steps in Beijing’s quiet, carefully planned annexation of the renegade island. Bit by bit, Mainland Chinese companies backed by the Communist machine (to whom money is no object) will buy up Taiwanese assets and put the country’s economy and national security at risk. The dubious benefits of a hastily-drafted trade agreement are far too high a price to pay for the country’s autonomy. And people don’t need to look far. This kind of creeping economic imperialism is already happening to their cousins in Hong Kong, where signs of gradual Sinofication are everywhere. Before they know it, Hong Kong – and Taiwan for that matter – will become the next Crimea.

There is no telling how much longer the student protestors will stay, or be allowed to stay, in the legislature. Two days ago, Ma Ying-jeou agreed to hold talks with student leaders to try to end the standoff. One proposal is to set up a mechanism for the legislature to scrutinize the implementation of CSSTA and future trade agreements with Mainland China. Whatever the outcome is, the saga has been the best thing that happened to the Democratic Progressive Party (民進黨, the main opposition) since Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) won the presidential election in 2000. Here in Hong Kong, we watch the unfolding events in Taipei with interest and envy. With our own political crisis brewing over the 2017 chief executive electionwe wonder if our university students will be as brave as their counterparts in Taipei. We wonder if sunflowers will ever bloom in Hong Kong.

Today's Crimea, tomorrow's Taiwan


________________________

This article appears on SCMP.com under the title "Why a little-understood trade agreement upsets so many in Taiwan."

As posted on SCMP.com



32 comments:

  1. To be fair, it takes much more courage to confront the communist regime in Peking with a proven track record of outright brutality (with about 3,000 PLA troops stationed in HK) than to confront the Ma Administration.

    Adrian

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    1. Well, it may take more courage but the stakes are higher in Taiwan. And Hong Kongers do tend to protest, whether or not that's to any avail remains to be seen. It doesn't go as far as storming government buildings but hopefully that's not necessary. What's happening in Taiwan may make a major change in any eventual reunification plans, it's hard to see what would be the HK equivalent that student protesters could do whether courageous or not...

      Ultimately, I do naively/optimistically hope that HK's freedoms will have a subtle positive influence on the mainland but that's a whole other topic.

      Delete
  2. Good read, a lot to learn. Seems the real danger can be summed up as: "Mainland corporations, such as banks and mobile service providers, will be able to set up branches and offices in Taiwan or purchase stakes in Taiwanese companies within the permitted industries, and vice versa."

    As someone stationed in the mainland, I know it's convenient I can use the same bank account or something when I go to HK, and Taiwan has all completely different companies. Imagining a future with ICBC and Kung Fun restaurants could be the first step towards a reunification they all don't want.

    However, couldn't this all be a conversation continued about general unfair 'free trade' practices and economic bullying? Mainland China and Taiwan is definitely sensitive, but howabout American fast food imperialism and so on?

    There is a lot of vitriol on the subject and not everyone knows the details of these new agreements, but that's kinda the point. Taiwanese do have reason to be afraid and every right to exercise their freedom to protest the government...

    Ray

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    1. I share my Taiwanese brothers' "natural suspicion." Many would rather starve than do business with the enemy.

      Delete
  3. The concern of the college students in Taiwan is reasonable. No doubt Mainland Chinese companies backed by the Communist machine will bit by bit buy up Taiwanese assets. It's happening everyday in Hong Kong with the assistance of 689.

    Andrew

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  4. My humble opinion : It is sad to see the student's action is part of the political struggle. Without fully understanding the content, they stormed into Taiwan's Capitol hill staging a protest unprecedented. Wondering who gave them right (by the Taiwan people?) Or simply because they are young and naive and should be immune or even encouraged but not harmed by what we called Rule of laws. After all, they are all over 21 years old grownup and should be willing to take responsibility like anyone. They should now show their courage and wisdom how they can finish the protest peacefully and get back to reason with the ruling party. Then Hong Kong students can learn a good lesson from it!

    Tim

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    1. Thanks for your dissent, Tim. What is life without politics and participation in society? Many great changes in the world were brought about by students. Remember those students who occupied Tiananmen Square in 1989? No one has ever accused them of meddling in politics.

      Delete
    2. Yes, but Taiwan is dealing with Mainland about a kind of trade issue for Taiwan's future (to stay competitive in the region) not a political suicide. If it is that sort as HKG's universal suffrage, then, I agree students have a point to protest.

      Tim

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    3. So the right to protest is limited to political issues but not economic ones? Besides, CSSTA is extremely political if you believe the future of Taiwan's autonomy is at stake.

      Delete
    4. There is only one thing to blame: Globalisation. Why Taiwan has been shut off from most of the regional trade pacts or having hard time to get into? If Taiwan does not make some progress with China, it will be even more difficult in the future. That is how I see it.

      Delete
    5. Does anyone see Japan,Singapore or HKG students protest when their government sign the trade pacts with China? Economics autonomy for a small nation without much resources can mean a suicide in a real time world.

      Tim

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    6. You would be right if you ignored what happened in China in the past, say, 100 years.

      Delete
    7. Not sure what you meant. But I totally agree with you China has come a long way for the past 100 years. However, China is still an infant in terms of true democracy (or never grow up). Yet, 30 years ago, no one would have predicted it will be a economics power like it is today. That cannot be overlooked and ignored. Wondering they have done it without any political reforms? Globalisation creates a monster I gathered.

      Tim

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    8. I recalled when HKG signed the similar one with China, the media simply told the public/students to "add value to oneself" like a Octopus Card. It is rather precise in a way.....

      Tim

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  5. Given what we currently see as the Sunflower Revolution in Taiwan - be it directly or indirectly politically motivated, it is indeed a good learning lesson for our university students in Hong Kong to ponder on and reflect in our own backyard of uphill political struggles turning into a crisis over the 2017 chief executive election,

    Time will tell if Jasmine, Sunflower or whatever flower to see us through. Or do Hong Kong ever need one ? Jasper Tsang, Chairman of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, has raised the alarm bell today to consider of what appropriate actions to take should the Hong Kong Legislative Council be stormed in Hong Kong.

    Grace

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  6. Usually, economic interests could cause the conflicts among different society systems I think.

    LP

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  7. Let me add this, an American POV as well. The Occupy Wall Street movement was often criticized for not having clear goals, and it wasn't hard to find 'man on the street' interviews that made protesters look like they didn't know what they were talking about. Yet, I still feel it was/is a very important movement. The lack of organizational structure showed it was truly grassroots. If there was a specific message, it was that people are pissed off at the power structure and they had every right to express it. That's a big part of what freedom should be about!

    I'm no expert in the intricacies of the region, but the government needs to be often reminded that they are supposed to work for the people, and the powerful shouldn't get away with doing whatever they want with no risk and no criticism. In general, my heart sympathizes on the protester side and I just plain feel that it's best for society to question authority.

    That said, the facts: Um, it's kind of patently obvious that Taiwan making major trade agreements with PRC China is a LITTLE different and more sensitive than just the usual globalization with any ol' country..... (and democratic infancy? It hasn't really been born yet in the mainland, might be a better analogy)

    Ray

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    1. You are absolutely right, Ray. People in Hong Kong (and Greater China for that matter) need a crash course on civil disobedience. Most people don't know what it is and assume that any beach of law is self-evidently wrong. We experience that line of reasoning when uninformed people criticize the Occupy Central movement.

      Delete
    2. Agree with you on civil disobedience term. Yet, I still think it is a trade issue between China and Taiwan, perhaps, it needs more be throughly examined. 'Occupy Central' is a movement to push for universal suffrage which is not the same to some extent.

      Tim

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    3. I will go for the movement for HKG's universal suffrage. That is clear goal!

      Tim

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  8. When we Hongkongers moved our factories to Shenzhen or upper north decades ago, mainland Chinese did not complaine. When Taiwanese set up their companies in Shanghai, Suzhou and many other places, there were no complaints neither. What is this term 'Sinofication' Jason mentions, I really do not understand what it means?!! May be Jason forgets the earth is flat nowadays. Money flows to where they can maximize their profit, not to ---fication some places because of some political motivation. When I read his bio, then I understand. Jason is a lawyer, not a economist. People like him tends to look at things with their tinted glasses. These people think there are political motivation behind every door. As a Hongkonger, the last thing we want is to have something like that happen in Hong Kong. Students, backed by politicians, who are not rational and do not listen to any reasons, just charge forward and want the whole society charge along with them. Our fathers and mothers have built Hong Kong into an international city with law and reasons. The last thing we want is to become another Thailand, Philippine and in this case, Taiwan.

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    1. Do you live in Hong Kong? Look what Sinofication is doing to Hong Kong. What was good in Hong Kong is diminishing and what is bad is increasing. More and more autonomy is being given up and tensions are high because of unchecked tourism and imigration. The central government is trying to turn Hon Kongers into loyal citizens and is interfering in economic and social aspects of all of our lives. OTOH Taiwan not only survived, but prospered for nearly 70 years without even being a state and having no formal status. I am sure they will be fine whether or not this pact goes through. I think the biggest problem with the pact is the principles that it is based on. It assumes the economic status quo in China will remain unchanged and China will keep growing economically and will be Taiwan's only chance at new growth. However, the China experiment is not yet complete and more and more economists are questioning whether it will succeed at all or even result in disaster.

      lucifer

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    2. Well said lucifer......

      Who in Hong Kong ( ? ) would ever want Hong Kong to be turned into another Singapore, let alone another Thailand, Philippines or Taiwan. Being a regular business traveller to the City State, it is nothing more than a boring clean looking city.

      I doubt this is what most Hongkongers would want Hong Kong to be one day.

      Satan

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    3. It is funny during arguments, people ask where are you from, which is nothing to do with the objectives of the subject we argue. But I answer you anyway. My family is farmers in New Territory even before the British took over. My HKID has three stars, which indicates I am the real locals, not immigrants during the wars from China. But do I have the right to tell the other Hongkongers or Chinese to go back to China? I do not think so. Whatever is happening in HK is the result of globalization, not the so-called "sinofication" Jason described. If you have the opportunity to travel to Europe and some middle East countries, and you can see the situation over there are much worse than Hong Kong or Taiwan. Young people cannot find jobs. Governments are much corrupted than ours, etc. I am not saying Hong Kong government should not address those issues you described: unchecked tourism or immigration, etc. But we need to understand clearly what are the real problems, then we can find solutions. It is easier to blame on other people of our problems. But it will only side track our focus but will not really solve the real problems.

      Delete
    4. " My HKID has three stars, which indicates I am the real locals, not immigrants during the wars from China."...... However, my HKID also has three stars which indicates I am also the real local, even though I was born and once a Mainlander from China.

      So, do you mean the HK Government Registration of Persons issued me with a wrong 3-star HKID card ?

      While you seem to distinguish Hongkongers and Chinese - and to counter your family and you as true native Hongkongers of the soil, nobody would care about who is or is not the real HK local.

      When basic facts are incorrect in arguments, they make the case lack of credibility.

      KongWah

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  9. Great article!

    Tong

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  10. Agreed " Hong Kong – and Taiwan for that matter – will become the next Crimea."
    See how creepy communists can be!!
    - Connie

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  11. Are the students in Taiwan against free trade in principles or simply against China? If it is the former then they may as well shut Taiwan completely from outside the world and just not trade at all. But if it is the latter, then it is merely political. Through out this campaign of theirs, students haven't presented with any substantive evidence how this trade pact will harm Taiwan economically.

    kongshan2047

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    1. The university students in Taiwan are against the hastily passed pact with the Mainland without proper and holistic review of its details in their legislative assembly. They are neither against free trade in principles nor against China when both existed before and not anything new. Of course, needless to say, there is alot of politics going on here.

      MeiRuan


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  12. The Taiwanese students are genuinely concerned about mainland Chinese interests taking over Taiwan by sheer volume only, no matter the field. Those are legitimate concerns that are manipulated by politicking politicians and their varied media minions. and being students, they have both the enthusiasm and the lack of perspective proper to youth.

    Sadly, they are twenty years too late, Taiwan cannot do without China any more.

    Catherine

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  13. "we wonder if our university students will be as brave as their counterparts in Taipei". I don't think the operative word is 'brave'. To charge ahead without thinking is brave, to do with conviction doesn't require bravery. The Taiwan students according to the writer don't know what the trade pact is about, but protest nevertheless. I hope HK students will not just be 'brave' but will know what the issues are before they take to the streets.

    Mercedes

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    1. Time will tell......a May flower Revolution ?

      Lexus

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