Taiwanese occupy parliament to stop trade deal

Protesters gathered in front of Legislative Yuan in Taiwan and called for a response from the Ma government. (WNV/Leo Sa)

Protesters gathered in front of Legislative Yuan in Taiwan and called for a response from the Ma government. (WNV/Leo Sa)

In the early hours of March 18, a group of almost 300 students and demonstrators occupied the Legislative Yuan — the Taiwanese Parliament — demanding an in-depth review of the unpopular “Cross-Strait Agreement on Trade in Services” with China.

They had broken off from an outside rally outside the building, stormed the speaker’s balcony and declared that the sit-in would continue until March 21, unless a better evaluation of the trade act and its consequences to the Taiwanese economy took place.

After the first night of occupation the Director General of the National Police Agency, Wang Con Chiun, stated that 38 police officers were injured in altercations with protesters. Organizers insist that all protesters have behaved nonviolently.

The deadline has now passed, but protesters are unwilling to let up. This is the first time in the history of Taiwan that citizens have occupied the parliament.

“We hope to show our demand in real action. The occupation of Legislative Yuan is the first step and it is clear that the protest is not enough for the president to provide any actual solution,” said Huang Yu Fen, one of the official spokesman from the occupation. “We’ll broaden the scale of protest.”

The treaty is a personal project of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying Jeou. He has signed many economic treaties with mainland China, and since his election in 2008, has attempted to improve tense relations between the two regions.

China still considers Taiwan a renegade province and has never ruled out the use of force to bring the former province under control. Both governments have recently tried to improve economic ties, and in February held their first direct government-to-government talks.

An opinion poll conducted by the Taiwan Indicators survey found that 44.5 percent of respondents opposed the treaty, and 38.2 percent supported it, while 73.7 percent demanded a line-item review of the agreement. The new treaty, which is an update of the 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, aims to facilitate freer trade in Taiwan and China’s service industries.

This would allow China, already Taiwan’s biggest trading partner, to invest in 64 sectors in the country, such as advertising, retail, print, healthcare and telecommunications. Taiwan, on the other hand, will be able to invest in 80 sectors in China.

The ruling party believes the open market will encourage more investment but detractors have argued that the agreement could open up the possibility of Chinese control over Taiwan’s press and service sectors.

Despite the public’s reservations, the trade pact was signed last June. Five days later, Taiwan’s two major parties agreed to a review of the treaty’s major points in 16 open public hearings before deciding on whether it would be enforced.

Despite three months of inconclusive and heated parliamentary debates — that even involved physical confrontation between legislators — no modifications were made to the treaty. A decision was made on March 17.

The legislator in charge of the Internal Affairs Committee, Chang Chin Chung, declared that the pact had been sufficiently reviewed and should be enforced immediately. The parliament was expected to confirm this decision on March 21.

With Chang’s 30-second statement, Taiwan’s public opinion was completely put aside by the same people they elected to work in their interest.

“This shouldn’t be happening in a democratic society,” said Huang Yu Fen.

Demonstrators occupied Taiwan's parliament  and hung their demands to the government. (WNV/Leo Sa)

Demonstrators occupied Taiwan’s parliament and hung their demands to the government. (WNV/Leo Sa)

Public response was swift, as many civic groups gathered and camped outside parliament. Organized by social media and Facebook groups, such as the Democratic Front Against Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement, the protesters demanded a thorough article-by-article review of the agreement.

Protesters repelled police attempts to evict them from the building, and set up a live stream from within the parliament, vowing to maintain their occupation for 63 hours. At the time of the writing, the occupation has been going for nine days.

Taiwanese authorities and some media outlets have labelled the occupiers “irrational hoodlums,” but many reports show protesters have tried their best to avoid unnecessary damages. They’ve even come up with a basic recycling system to avoid littering.

Li Yun Yue is a current university drop-out and was one of the initial occupiers. He is now in charge of organizing and distributing all the resources and donations between the protesters.

“It wasn’t until Saturday, that the protesters in parliament set up a volunteer system to regulate all the jobs, such as distribution of resources, recycling garbage and moving materials between the occupation and the protest outside,” Li said. “Since the occupation has transformed from a few-day protest to a long-term fight, it is urgent for the protesters inside to generate a system to take care of their basic needs.”

The protesters have also received support from the public and their families. Thousands of people joined them outside the Legislative Yuan. Parents and grandparents brought supplies, and volunteer lawyers provided information on how to access legal aid in case of arrest.

“The reason we can occupy the Legislative Yuan is because of close collaboration. Many citizen-launched organizations worked together to form an alliance,” said Huang. “Inside and outside the parliament building people from different groups maintain order, medical care and clear garbage.”

Volunteers delivered food on the street for demonstrators. (WNV/Feng Pei Yu)

Volunteers delivered food on the streets of Taipei for demonstrators. (WNV/Feng Pei Yu)

One of those volunteers is Chang Yu Ko, another student who has been in the area since the beginning of the protest.

“There are people in charge of medical care, media and communication, food and resources distribution,” Ko said. “People are very cooperative and stand together to help each other. Everyone volunteers to help.”

Volunteers now direct traffic in the streets surrounding the parliament, making sure that foot traffic can flow smoothly. Temporary bathrooms have been installed and a makeshift hospital built to assist with any possible injuries or medical problems.

On March 21 — the day parliament was supposed to officially approve the pact — 28,000 people gathered outside and around the parliament. The 52-member Association of National Universities of Taiwan issued a joint statement calling on the president to respond to the protesters’ demands, and urged Ma to engage in talks with protest leaders as soon as possible to defuse the situation.

Instead, the police presence was reinforced, which included the arrival of water cannons. Police in riot gear gathered, barbed wire was placed around the Executive Yuan — the executive branch of Taiwan’s government — and several roads around the Presidential Building were closed.

What started as a spontaneous student protest had turned into an organized movement with the ability to manage donations of food, blankets and garbage bags coming from all over Taiwan. There has been a large wave of online and offline support. For instance, Taiwanese living abroad created an independent translation group that provides updates on the protest in different languages for international audiences.

“We aim to provide neutral information and just want the world to be aware of this situation,” said founder Pan Yen Lin. “We started with a press release created with information from the media, scholars who attended the official trade pact meetings and from the trade pact itself. It covers the inequality of this trade pact, the possible effects on Taiwan and also the lack of discussion between the government and the public.”

After having already managed to translate their press release — into nine different languages — they are now looking to translate the pact into English.

In another show of online support, the Taiwanese online hacking community g0v.tw started providing tech support to occupiers. The group used their expertise to help improve the protesters’ live stream and provided a stronger Wi-Fi signal for communications between those within and outside the building.

Protesters have been sleeping on the street for demonstration for days. (WNV/Ya Chen Chen)

Protesters have been sleeping on the streets of Taipei for days. (WNV/Ya Chen Chen)

At 10 a.m. on March 23, President Ma finally addressed the demands of the protesters, making his first statement since the protests began. In it he stated that protesters should leave the parliament and let legislators review the trade act, which he emphasized was in Taiwan’s best interest. They have now vowed to continue their protests until the government makes a satisfying decision to review the pact.

However, on March 23 at 7:30 p.m. — one day after the Taipei City mayor promised that the police would refrain from using force — almost 60 people were arrested and more than a hundred were injured after police used water cannons on protesters who tried to occupy of the Executive Yuan. Police authorities had to drag out protesters one by one, clearing the building by the early morning of March 24.

On March 25, President Ma issued a statement inviting student representatives to the presidential office for a dialogue about the trade agreement. This concession comes after previous statements by the president calling the occupation “illegal” and urging the protesters to leave the parliament.

Li Fei Fan, one of the leaders of the occupation movement, stated the protesters would be willing to accept the president’s invitation to dialogue only if he is willing to discuss legislation to monitor all agreements with China and to halt the service pact until this new legislation is created.

If those conditions are not respected the protesters have vowed to maintain their occupation. At the time of this writing, occupiers still remain in parliament.

This story was made possible by our members. Become one today.