On 18 March, in a direct challenge to the government of Taiwan, hundreds of activists stormed the main legislative chamber in the capital Taipai, the Legislative Yuan (the Taiwanese parliament). They were protesting at a trade agreement with the People’s Republic of China (known as the Cross-strait Service Trade Agreement, or CSSTA).
On the previous day, during a chaotic legislative procedure, Chang Ching-Chung, the convener of the legislative session and a member of the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) party, forced through the ratification of the agreement. This decision provoked a civic protest movement that was unprecedented in the history of the island. Taiwanese politics would never be the same again.
On the evening of 23 March, and with the occupation of the Legislative Yuan continuing, hundreds of protesters, discontented with the deadlock in negotiations, extended the protest by breaking into the Executive Yuan. The riot police were sent in and, after clearing journalists from the site, began carrying protesters away. Many protesters were injured, beaten with batons, and attacked with high-pressure water cannon.
Yet the occupation was not broken. For 24 days, people travelled across the island from different cities, sitting outside the Legislative Yuan day and night in solidarity with the activists inside the building. On 30 March a massive rally of half a million people took place on Ketagalan Boulevard in front of the President’s Office in support of the movement.
Here was evidence that this was not a question of a few hundred activists or the tens of thousands of their supporters. The issue of the agreement had now divided the whole island.
On 6 April, Wang Jin-pyng, president of the Legislative Yuan, was allowed to enter the occupation. In negotiations he promised he would not call any legislative sessions for the CSSTA (the trade agreement) until the constitutional supervision law that was a key demand for the protesters had been established.
Members of the leading activist group then announced their withdrawal from the Legislative Yuan on 10 April, considering that Wang’s promise was the best that could be achieved. “This is not the end,” they said, calling on all citizens for further actions.
Whatever the differences over tactics and strategy, and whether this concession was a victory or merely a delaying tactic, what was clear was the government had suffered a major setback.
What was also clear was that this setback had been inflicted not by the official opposition but by the power of popular protest. Taiwanese politics would truly never be the same again.
The trade agreement, signed in June last year, was only a predictable consequence of the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement between China and Taiwan. Yet it was this detail that ignited the movement, and it was only the occupation of the Legislative Yuan that raised public awareness of the political implications both of the trade agreement itself and of the framework that had prepared its ground.
The CSSTA has been opposed by many activists. Nevertheless, the government’s 58 percent majority in the Legislative Yuan, led it to believe that it could steamroller the agreement through. The main opposition, the Democratic Progressive Party, merely delayed the treaty’s ratification by boycotting previous legislative sessions. The popular power of the occupation arrested the process completely and turned the issue into a political crisis. Since the occupation not only the ruling party but also the leaders of the DPP have lost much of their political credibility.
Once ratified, the treaty would have liberalised trade across a range of service industries, including banking, healthcare, tourism, telecommunications and publishing.
Given the tension between Taiwan and China from their complicated economic, political and cultural histories (see panel), the treaty raised concerns for many Taiwanese. What was the political motivation for the treaty? What would be its political consequences?
Some were concerned for the future of the democratic freedoms secured in the last 20 years. Some were concerned that Taiwanese identity would be extinguished by a close association with its giant neighbour. Others were concerned that liberalisation would create a race to the bottom over wages and conditions while free trade unions do not yet exist in China.
While the treaty itself does not specify, for example, that Taiwan’s publishing industry must be opened to Chinese investors, it does open upstream and downstream industries in printing and retailing. Many in the media are worried about censorship from Beijing, given differences in the respective forms of government, and the vertically integrated nature of Chinese publishing.
In fact, Chinese investment has already been infiltrating Taiwan’s media and other industrial and service sectors. Equally, Taiwanese capital has been making heavy investment in mainland China in order to take advantage of the latter’s economic growth and its cheaper labour and infrastructure costs.
While portrayed as riots by the mainstream media in Taiwan, the occupation, which was later dubbed “the Sunflower Movement”, gained considerable public support through new forms of media technology. The occupation made key demands: to suspend the CSSTA, to freeze its renegotiation until a democratic supervision mechanism for China-Taiwan agreements has been established, and to establish a civic conference on constitutional government to design an appropriate supervision mechanism supported by all legislators.
Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, approved the freedom of expression of the protesters on the one hand while condemning the occupation as “a violation of the foundation of the rule of law” on the other. He responded to these demands by saying that the CSSTA must be passed if Taiwan was to stay competitive in the face of the challenge from China and the global market.
Rejection of the CSSTA would he argued, damage Taiwan’s international reputation and its intention to join future free trade agreements such as the US-backed Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The protest and occupation were organised by a variety of forces. These included the leading student activist group, The Black Island Nation Youth Front, the Green Citizens’ Action Alliance, the Taiwan Labour Front, Taiwan Association of University Professors, Taiwan Association for Human Rights, Taiwan Rural Front, Citizens of the Earth, and the feminist group, Awakening Foundation and the Alliance of Referendum for Taiwan.
Nature of democracy
There are different voices coming from people who are broadly in support of the movement. For many young participants, this movement has changed their political orientation irreversibly. Gone are political apathy and a disdain for politics, and gone is a lack of interest in history and a naive acceptance of official history.
The movement provoked debates about the values and nature of democracy, about intergenerational conflict and about Chinese and Taiwanese identity. Some activists expressed discontent with the leading activist group’s overt appeal to the principle of “non-violence” in order to gain popular support, thereby reinforcing traditional, popular acceptance of the disciplinary practices of the state. Trade unionists of the National Alliance for Workers of Closed Factories also criticised the movement’s leadership for a rhetoric that focused exclusively on “saving our democracy” and “Taiwanese independence against totalitarian China”, thereby failing to extend the movement to a challenge to neoliberal global capitalism.
There are also some trade unions that are opposed to the movement, and in favour of the CSSTA, either because they believe that it would create more job opportunities or because they identify themselves as Chinese first, and consequently favour unification with China. Some also argue that economic integration with China is Taiwan’s only effective way to fight against the neoliberal, economic imperialism of the West.
These arguments overlook the fact that economic domination comes not only from the West. The Chinese economy is now fully, and increasingly, engaged in the global capitalist economy via trade, inward and outward direct and indirect foreign investment, and through financial arrangements. China is, for example, intensely engaged across the world, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, in both direct investment and tied aid for infrastructure projects, in order to secure its future mineral needs.
For Beijing, the continued independence of Taiwan is not simply a cultural affront to the dignity of Chinese unity. It is not simply a matter of face, though it is that as well, both for the bureaucratic ruling class in the leadership of the Communist Party, and for China’s new class of billionaires. It is also a matter of Taiwanese technological and commercial expertise.
Taiwan remains a major potential economic asset for China. The ambition for unification is now pursued, by both the KMT and Beijing, through a drive to economic integration rather than by force of arms. It is not about equality, justice or socialism, or about the popular will, or the interests of the Taiwanese working class.
The profoundest lesson that the youth has learned is that the issue of where Taiwan is headed is the responsibility of everyone, not just the dominant economic class in the island or its political representatives. For the struggle to continue successfully, however, it will require the movement to overcome the age, sex and “racial” divisions that are characteristic of the modern proletariat in Taiwan just as much as they are elsewhere in global capitalism.
For the Taiwanese working class, that requires a focus on the similarities between their struggles at home and those of workers in China who are fighting low wages and the threat of unemployment, sometimes against the same Taiwanese owners. Challenging the decades of KMT propaganda about unity and unification will be key.
Unity across the strait
Equally, a key requirement for the renewal of an independent Chinese working class movement will be a rejection of any Chinese national chauvinism, or superiority towards the Taiwanese movement.
Any possibility of working class unity across the strait has to start from a recognition that unification without political change in China would merely be the imposition of Beijing rule and the associated censorship. The argument of Chinese socialists must be for the right of the Taiwanese to independence if they so choose.
Meanwhile, the movement needs to resist any attempt to re-impose the agreement, and needs to build its support by engaging in every act of resistance, every strike, and every social movement for which its inspiration has now created the political space.
Man-Yun Kao is a student at the University of Brighton (UK). She has been working on the relationship between philosophy and politics.
See Taiwan and China: promise and threat by Tom Hickey
See also Man-Yun Kao’s interviews with Su Beng, Marxist historian and veteran Taiwanese independence fighter, and Lu Chyi-Horng, activist in the National Alliance for Workers of Closed Factories, about the protests against the Trade Agreement.
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