Tea Leaf Nation

China, We Fear You

A viral essay explains why many Taiwanese think their government is selling out to China.

On March 18, thousands of students began a sit-in of Taiwan's Legislative Yuan in the capital, Taipei, a historic first that has paralyzed the island's lawmaking body. Students have amassed to protest an attempt by the Kuomintang, the island's ruling party, to push through a trade pact with China. The Taiwanese government negotiated the pact, known as the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), with its mainland counterparts and tried to push it through the legislature without debating the pact item by item. Sentiment against the CSSTA immediately reached a boiling point among many Taiwanese already anxious about the increasing influence of China, its neighbor, cultural cousin, and closest trade partner -- one that claims to have sovereignty over Taiwan. The essay below was written by a Taiwanese attorney, Richard Chiou-yuan Lu, and has gone viral on Facebook, Taiwan's social network of choice. Foreign Policy translates an edited excerpt, with permission.

Many people don't understand what the CSSTA says, so some protesters don't even know why they oppose it. No one in Taiwan dares to write in support of the pact because sentiment here has almost reached the point where anyone who dares to support the CSSTA is seen as a traitor. But could Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou really have been that flagrant in selling us out? If everyone believes that the agreement is bad for Taiwan, why did Ma insist on signing it?

Put simply, the CSSTA opens up cross-strait investment in the service sector. In the future, Taiwanese investors will have far more latitude in China to go into sectors like hospitals, publishing, tutoring, and banking. The same will be true of Chinese investors here. For Taiwanese financiers, the benefits absolutely outweigh the drawbacks. For average Taiwanese people, if they don't mind having a Chinese boss, there will be more jobs because increased investment in Taiwan will bring about more employment opportunities. 

In fact, according to the pact, China will open up more sectors to us (80) than we to them (64). If our legislature had voted on the agreement one provision at a time, it would not have been favorable for us, because the whole negotiation would need to be reopened. In renegotiation, it's unreasonable to expect China to let us insert yet more provisions that work for us but not demand something in return.

If the CSSTA were with any other country, it would be acceptable. If Japan's economy opened up to Taiwanese capital and Japanese companies were to set up branches here, and there ended up being Japanese people all over our streets, would that be so bad? Not for Japanophiles like me. But Japan would not give us these favorable terms because it would insist on equal exchange and not give an inch in negotiations. As economists say, there's no free lunch. Why should China act any differently?

Kids, we all know China "loves" us. They want us to return to the "motherland" as soon as possible. But first they have to seize our economy by its lifeline. If one day our convenience stores and supermarkets become Chinese-owned, the Taiwan Taxi company is renamed Chinese Taiwan Taxi, our bank and credit card records are sent to headquarters in Beijing, and directors of our top hospitals are replaced by Chinese, can we accept that?

The truth is, the Taiwanese companies that can afford to set up branches in China are large conglomerates, and those Taiwanese profiting the most from the CSSTA are tycoons and their families, not your family or mine. As far as Chinese companies are concerned, their investment in Taiwan is a drop in the bucket that won't affect their overall operations. And those Chinese companies are deeply influenced by their political system. If Taiwan were to hold a referendum on independence, the Chinese government might order its companies to cease operations in Taiwan. For example, our convenience stores would close and our taxi service would stop, assuming they had Chinese investment, and Beijing would have our credit card records and hospital records in hand. With such a scenario staring us in the face, could we still hold the referendum? 

This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Something like this has already happened to our media when the Want Want Group, which has significant business in China, acquired the China Times, one of Taiwan's largest newspapers, in November 2008. People's Daily, China's widely reviled Communist Party mouthpiece, is probably better than what the China Times has become today.

The truth is that if the counterparty to the agreement were a country other than China -- or a democratized China that would treat Taiwan as an equal and stop trying to achieve its political agenda through business, and didn't want to swallow us up -- we'd happily accept the pact. Take the words from the above paragraphs and insert "Japan" or "the United States" in place of China -- there would be no issue. When Taiwan signed a free trade agreement with New Zealand in June 2013, the public wasn't out for blood then.

But why is it that when it comes to China, we won't give an inch? It's because we're afraid of you, China. Really. We're very afraid.

Translated by David Wertime and Rachel Lu

Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

Boiling Point

In a historic first, Taiwanese youth are occupying their legislature to protest a trade pact with China.

On March 18, hundreds of college students stormed the chambers of the Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, its lawmaking body, in the capital Taipei. Over the past two days, they have staged a sit-in -- the first student sit-in in the history of the Legislative Yuan -- to protest what they view as the opaque ratification of a trade deal with China, after the island's ruling Kuomintang (KMT) pushed it through parliament on March 18. As economic relations improve between China and Taiwan, partisan bickering has intensified between the KMT, which favors better relations with mainland China, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which advocates independence. Issues like revisions to school textbook language and media monopolies with financial ties to China have sparked concern among Taiwanese of growing mainland influence in Taiwan's domestic affairs. The division between those Taiwanese favoring reunification, known colloquially as "blue," and those opposed to reunification, known as "green," is one that has wracked the island for decades, and it only appears to be deepening. 

Demonstrators first began gathering outside parliament the day that KMT legislator Chang Ching-chung abruptly ended a hearing, over which he presided, to consider the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement, a trade pact between China and Taiwan. Chang declared the agreement -- which was signed in June 2013, and had languished without resolution -- to have passed out of committee, now able to be placed before the entire legislature for a vote scheduled for on March 21. By 9 p.m. on March 18, angry protesters had broken through a phalanx of officers regularly stationed outside the building, while thousands of college-aged students who had learned about the protests through social media and the Internet thronged in the streets outside. Protesters strummed guitars and sang Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'."

Taiwanese opponents to the pact are chiefly concerned it could make it more difficult for Taiwanese businesses to compete with their mainland counterparts, and that China will benefit more than Taiwan from investing in the island's "relatively transparent business environment." But Huang Guo-chang, a law professor at Taipei's National Chengchi University, a well-known school that teaches politics and law, said the protests are also about "democracy" because Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou did "not allow the legislature to substantively deliberate the agreement. 

The protests have been playing out online as well as offline. Through UStream, a video streaming service, students used iPads to broadcast continuous live video of the sit-in and outdoor demonstrations. They also used it to host question-and-answer sessions, where viewers could write in about any related topic in real time. On March 20, nearly 11,000 UStream viewers tuned in as Chinese dissident Wuerkaixi, a student movement leader during China's brutally suppressed 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square who now lives in Taiwan, addressed the chamber in a 2:30 a.m. speech, calling on Ma "to come down to apologize to students."

Yoshi Liu, one of the student organizers, told Foreign Policy that if Ma met with protesters, they would ask Ma to "immediately withdraw from the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement," commonly known as ECFA, signed in June 2010 to reduce trade barriers between China and Taiwan. (The latest agreement is an expansion of the ECFA.) Liu added he was unsure how long students would occupy the Legislative Yuan or whether they would move their protests to the presidential palace. (Presidential spokeswoman Lee Chia-fei said on March 20 that Ma and a number of other officials planned to meet among themselves the morning of March 21 to discuss how to "settle" the sit-in and restore order to the Legislative Yuan.)

Student organizers have said seizing the parliament was their only option. Chen Wei-ting, a student organizer attending National Tsing Hua University, a prestigious school in northern Taiwan, wrote on his Facebook page that "an attack is the best defense" and encouraged Taiwanese to head to the Legislative Yuan "after work and class" to take part in the protests.

Others have criticized the sit-in and the protests as unnecessary. In an article published on the website of TVBS, a Taiwanese television station, National Chengchi University professor Ku Chung-hwa asked why "political parties cannot first sit down and talk through" their differences. The article also included remarks from members of "the public," but did not identify those quoted by name. One person commented that protesters should behave "more rationally," while another asked why students were even demonstrating at all since they "don't trade or do business."

Despite the fact that at least 38 officers have been injured in scuffles with protesters, it appears students have found a sympathetic ear among some police. Officers have told Taiwanese press they do not wish to "bear the burden" of physical confrontation with the students. One officer even reportedly posted on Facebook, Taiwan's social network of choice, that he, too, was angry about the "careless passage" of the trade pact, emphasizing that police "are not the enemy" but rather "comrades-in-arms" with the protesters "standing opposite" them.

As of this article's publication, students, who smashed front-door windows and piled up furniture to prevent police from entering, remain barricaded inside the chambers. In a March 20 statement, Legislative Yuan President Wang Jin-pyng urged "calm" and "self-restraint" among protesters and asked that they "allow the Legislative Yuan to return to normal." Ma has not yet issued a statement about whether he will meet with protesters. The Legislative Yuan was expected to take up the trade pact again on March 21. Meanwhile, police have tried on several occasions to storm the Yuan, each time being fended off by protesters. Unless students vacate the parliamentary building before then, further confrontation could be in the offing.

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