Last night I set out for Tainan’s Flower Night Market but ended up attending a student protest at National Cheng Kung University instead. This protest was organized in solidarity with the group of students occupying the Legislative Yuan (Taiwan’s parliament) in Taipei.
The storming of the Legislative Yuan occurred in response to a decision by KMT lawmakers to end a bipartisan clause-by-clause review of a China-Taiwan services pact, greatly expediting its eventual implementation. As-is, the pact would liberalize cross-strait trade in various service sectors, such as laundries, hair salons, beauty centers, and Chinese medicine dealers, allowing Taiwanese companies to set up shop in China and likewise for Chinese companies in Taiwan.
At time of writing there is a widening band of protesters gathering around the student-occupied legislature, and the opposition DPP party seems to have thrown its weight behind the movement, whether the students like it or not.
What I found interesting about the protest I witnessed in Tainan was the similarity of the language being used vis-a-vis other anti-free trade protests in Canada and other Western countries; it’s a movement that fits snugly into an increasingly global narrative of political powerlessness and ennui in the face of implacable neoliberalism. Essentially this protest was about the right to earn a dignified living, to have a good job that can support a family, and not having to worry about the toxicity of the air you breathe or the food you eat.
These are fair demands, especially given the current state of worker wages in Taiwan. Since first coming here I have constantly been astounded by how hard the average Taiwanese person works and how little they are compensated for it. So to me, it’s not terribly surprising that these students have doubts about their economic future and are worried about having to compete with a country of 1.3 billion; in terms of economies of scale, the advantage lies squarely on the other side of the Strait.
Another parallel between Canada and Taiwan discernible in the protests is the generation gap in terms of economic and political sensibilities. This is a topic that interests me so I tend to ask my Taiwanese friends and people I meet about it. Their answers paint a similar picture to our very own Boomers: there is an older generation who experienced wage and property value growth, cradle-to-grave job security, and pensions, and a younger generation who exist in a world of insecurity, income stagnation, and prohibitively expensive housing (particularly in Taipei). To cap it all off, this younger generation must grit their teeth and endure incredibly patronizing portrayals from their political leaders and the media, such as that the protesters “don’t understand the international situation” and that they’re “trampling the dignity… of the people of Taiwan.”
In President Ma’s initial response to the occupation, he called for a quick evacuation so that other countries wouldn’t start to “doubt Taiwan’s sincerity and credibility in signing new free trade agreements.” Like there was no reason to believe that this free trade agreement with that country on the other side of the Strait, the one that claims exclusive writ over your territory, would be any different from signing a free trade agreement with, say, Borneo.
Though the protest may not be about the China question directly, it’s never too far in the background. The protesters are particularly concerned about the lack of transparency with which cross-strait negotiations are taking place. Indeed, one of the demands in a recently-issued ultimatum from the students was for a monitoring mechanism for all future negotiations. There is a pervasive worry that Taiwan will be ‘sold’ to China, and that deepening economic integration – though it will spell doom for Taiwan’s de facto independence – will still be a fabulously profitable venture for Taiwan’s business elite; workers be damned.
The occupation of the Legislative Yuan is an extreme act, but as others have pointed out, it’s one that could have been avoided. Pressure is building from segments of Taiwanese society who feel their concerns are not being heeded and, one way or the other, this will end up being a seminal event. We’re either going to see a peaceful solution that retrenches Taiwan’s democratic credentials or something we wish we hadn’t.