Thousands of Taiwanese were surrounding and occupying the Legislative Yuan (LY) in Taipei on March 19 after legislators from the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) expedited the review process of a services trade pact with China that many fear could have damaging repercussions on Taiwan’s economy and sovereignty.
Controversy over the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA) began in June 2013 after negotiators from Taiwan’s semi-official Straits Exchange Foundation (SEF) signed the agreement, a follow-on to the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) signed in 2010, with their Chinese counterparts. The breadth and scope of the reciprocal agreement, which was negotiated behind closed doors and would open various sectors of the service industry to China, was such that many legislators from the KMT, whose leadership favors closer ties with China, balked, fearing the pact’s repercussions on their constituencies.
After the KMT imposed internal measures making dissent grounds for expulsion, its reluctant legislators fell in line and began the process of passing the pact in the legislature.
However, close scrutiny by opposition lawmakers, academics, and civic organizations, which held a series of peaceful protests, compelled the government to submit the CSSTA to the legislature for consideration. Further pressure from civil society, which feared negative consequences of the pact not only for Taiwan’s economy, but also for freedom of speech and other aspects of the nation’s democracy, eventually forced the government to compromise. A June 25, 2013 agreement stipulated that the pact would be reviewed clause-by-clause. Additionally, on September 25, parties agreed to hold a total of 16 public hearings — eight chaired by the KMT, and eight by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — for consultations with academics, NGOs, and many of the sectors that stood to be affected by the pact.
The KMT held its eight hearings within the space of a week, with several members of social groups and NGOs complaining about lack of access. Moreover, several business representatives were not invited to attend, or were informed at the last minute, making their participation all but impossible.
Following completion of the hearings and substantial input by academics and the business sector, KMT Legislator Chang Ching-chung, the presiding chair of the legislature’s Internal Administrative Committee, said the agreement could not be amended and had to be adopted as is, raising questions over the utility of the public hearings. The hearings and legislative battles over the CSSTA nevertheless made it impossible to pass it by the end of 2013, as the government had hoped.
Negotiations on the matter resumed in the legislature in March 2014, when DPP Legislator Chen Chi-mai secured the right to plan the agenda for a clause-by-clause review as agreed earlier. However, KMT legislators blocked the process, leading to clashes in the legislature over a period of three days. Meanwhile, civic organizations launched a sit-in outside the LY.
Then, on March 17, with the legislature brought to a standstill and the DPP occupying the podium, Chang, citing Article 61 of the Legislative Yuan Functions Act, announced that the review process had gone beyond the 90 days allotted for review. The agreement should therefore be considered to have been reviewed and be submitted to a plenary session on March 21 for a final vote. Immediately, the Executive Yuan “congratulated” Chang for successfully reviewing the agreement, even though no review was ever held, and experts later noted that Article 61 did not apply, as the CSSTA is a component of the ECFA, which itself is a “prospective treaty” (准條約) and not an executive order. With 65 members in the 113-seat legislature, the KMT was assured a victory, with expectations that the pact could be implemented as early as June 2014.
The sudden announcement caught everybody by surprise and sparked anger among the public. The sit-ins continued on the evening of March 17, followed by a much larger one on the evening of March 18.
Late in the evening, protesters — a mix of students, academics, civic organizations and others — climbed over the fence at the legislature and managed to enter the building. In the melee, one window of the LY was smashed and a police officer suffered serious injuries. At this writing, there was no confirmation whether the officer was the victim of a deliberate attack or, more likely, was injured by accident (protest leaders have repeatedly urged protesters to not damage property and not attack law enforcement authorities). A lawyer who was assigned to the protesters told The Diplomat that so far, six individuals had been arrested over the protest. About 300 members occupied the legislative floor overnight and succeeded in warding off several attempts by police to expel them. Several hundred others remained outside. The protesters demanded that the clause-by-clause review of the agreement be reinstated, otherwise they vowed to occupy the legislature until March 21, when the LY was scheduled to vote and pass the CSSTA. As late evening turned into night, the authorities cut water and electricity to the building. Premier Jiang Yi-huah, in a move that was largely seen as overreaction, ordered that riot police be sent in to evict the protesters, but that directive was not implemented.
By the morning of March 19, the protesters’ numbers had swelled to several thousand, who encircled the legislature and blocked every point of access, under the watchful eye of hundreds of police officers. At every corner of the building, groups chanted slogans, waved banners, and listened to speeches by legislators, academics, and student leaders, as supporters brought them water, food, and ventilators. At one point, one of the organizers announced that if their demands were not met by March 21, they would threaten to occupy the Presidential Office next. Inside, the core group had by then set up an ad hoc medical clinic and a communications center to coordinate their activities. Meanwhile, the activists — who accounted for about 90 percent of the entire group — used social media to broadcast the event live while using Facebook (Taiwan has the highest Facebook penetration rate in the world) to share pictures and video. More people showed up later on March 19, bringing the protest to upwards of 12,000 people.
While this was not the first time in recent years that activists occupied a government building — the Ministry of the Interior was similarly occupied in August 2013 in protest over a series of controversial demolitions and land seizures — the events at the LY are unprecedented. The protests are the result of several months of mounting anger at a government that is perceived to have become less accountable in recent years, perhaps as a result of mounting pressure from China. Beijing hopes to see such deals adopted as soon as possible so that the governments can move on to greater things, such as talks on a “peace agreement.”
Unsurprisingly, media close to the administration quickly pointed out the “undemocratic” nature of the protests (in fact, protesting is a democratic right) and engaged in fabrication to discredit the protesters, such as claiming that the groups had “vandalized the legislature” (which they have not) and that they were mobilized by DPP politicians (the civic organizations have kept the DPP and other parties at arms’ length). Lack of transparency in cross-strait deals, undue pressure by business groups on both sides of the Strait, governance with authoritarian tendencies, and the opposition DPP’s ham-fisted response to the many social challenges that confront the nation have resulted in a public that is increasingly disillusioned with its government and political parties. And this time, they deemed that things had gone too far and took matters into their own hands.
At this writing (March 20, 12:30am), several thousand people were still at the legislature, and it was unclear whether police would once again attempt to dislodge them. Late on the evening of March 19, members of gangster Chang An-le’s pro-unification party showed up at the protest and tried to start a fight with some participants, who failed to retaliate. Soon afterwards, pictures appeared on Facebook of suspected gangsters bearing knives, a chilling reminder of recent attacks in Hong Kong.