Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou agreed to meet protesters in a bid to assuage anger over a China trade pact that prompted a weeklong seizure of the legislature and clashes with riot police.
Ma is willing to meet the students to discuss the services trade pact, his office said in an e-mailed statement, after the president said earlier he would not hold face-to-face talks. The students, who argue that ruling party lawmakers circumvented a legislative review of the trade deal, agreed to the offer, student leader Lin Fei-fan said in comments carried on cable television.
The two sides’ decision to meet pointed to a way out of a crisis that’s tested Ma as he battles low popularity ratings and underscored concern in Taiwan about his government’s policy of seeking closer economic ties to China. Some protesters say that the pact will squeeze out Taiwanese companies and make the economy more vulnerable.
“This whole process has been unclear and the regulations governing the negotiation are unclear,” said Marc Ma, a 36-year-old software designer who was among the protesters. “It should have been handled with more caution. With China you never know about these things. You say this is a good deal, but good for whom?”
Student protesters have demanded the services pact be renegotiated and are calling for a law governing future economic negotiations with China.
The conflict escalated to a takeover of a separate cabinet compound March 23 after Ma failed to satisfy protesters’ concerns at a press briefing. Riot police dispersed those demonstrators with water cannons and batons in clashes that injured more than 100 people. About 60 people were arrested.
The unrest began as a conflict in the lawmakers’ review process, legislative leader Wang Jin-pyng said in a statement yesterday. Lawmakers from the Kuomintang and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party were scheduled to meet today to discuss reviewing the trade agreement, Wang said.
“With the legislative yuan still paralyzed and interrupting the work of the legislature and government administration, the president agreed to invite students to the presidential office, under no preconditions, to discuss the services trade pact,” Ma’s office said in the e-mail.
The services trade agreement, signed by cross-strait trade negotiators in June, would open service industries such as banking, hospitals and beauty salons to markets and competition across the Taiwan Strait. The Democratic Progressive Party wants to amend provisions covering banking and e-commerce. Ma’s Kuomintang has a majority of seats in the legislature.
Since his election in 2008, Ma has moved Taiwan away from independence-leaning policies and sought closer tourism and trade ties with China. Two-way trade reached $197.2 billion in 2013, almost double from five years earlier.
Those efforts culminated with talks in the Chinese city of Nanjing in February that marked the first formal contact between the two governments since the civil war that led Chiang Kai-shek to flee the mainland and set up a rival government on Taiwan in 1949.
The U.S. hopes discussions on the trade pact can be carried out peacefully, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said yesterday.
“We certainly support Taiwan’s vibrant democracy, which allows for this kind of robust political dialogue,” Harf said. “We have welcomed steps taken by both sides on the Taiwan Strait -- that they’ve taken to reduce tensions and improve relations between Taipei and Beijing.”