March 31 (Bloomberg) -- More than 100,000 Taiwanese marched in Taipei to protest a trade deal with China, challenging President Ma Ying-jeou’s plan to improve economic relations between the political rivals.
As many as half a million people joined the demonstrations yesterday in a turnout that “wrote history,” student leader Lin Fei-fan said at the rally. The National Police Agency estimated there were 116,000 demonstrators. Protesters gathered outside the presidential office a day after Ma rejected demands to withdraw an agreement to open Taiwan’s service industries to competitors from China.
“China doesn’t respect what Taiwan wants, and this trade deal will help it get more control over us,” said Justin Hsu, 27, a factory worker who traveled from Kaohsiung in southern Taiwan to join the march.
Thousands of protesters clashed with riot police on the night of March 23 after storming the cabinet compound for the first time in Taiwan’s history. The stalemate, now approaching its third week, may stall the country’s growth, economists at Bank of America said. The protests reflect growing skepticism over greater economic integration with China, which has become Taiwan’s largest trade partner even as the neighbors remain without a truce after a civil war six decades ago.
“The protest is a chance for the students to show they have widespread support for their view that the trade pact and the way Ma’s government functions is not in Taiwan’s best interests,” said Bruce Jacobs, author of “Democratizing Taiwan” and Emeritus Professor of Asian Languages and Studies at Monash University in Melbourne. “There’s a valid concern in Taiwan about the military and political threat China poses.”
China and Taiwan have been governed separately since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists fled during a civil war with Mao Zedong’s Communists who won control of China. The country still claims Taiwan, which held its first democratic presidential election in 1996, as part of its territory, pointing more than 1,000 missiles at its neighbor in demonstration of its will for eventual unification.
The protesters, whose occupation of the legislative chamber is entering the 14th day, are demanding a renegotiation of the services deal and regulations to monitor future agreements with China.
President Ma said March 29 that while he supports an item-by-item review of the agreement at the legislature, a withdrawal would undermine Taiwan’s economy and international credibility. He promised support for a legal mechanism to monitor future cross-strait deals, while stressing that the services pact should proceed.
Many demonstrators wore black and held sunflowers, a reference to the “Sunflower Movement” for which the protests have been named.
Student leader Lin called on demonstrators at the rally to continue occupying the legislature this week. The monitoring measures should be legislated before the services pact is reviewed, he said. Committee meetings at the legislature resumed today after a two-week suspension, while tomorrow’s full-floor session will be canceled because of the occupation.
Taiwan’s benchmark Taiex index was little changed at 8,776.21 as of 11 a.m. today while its Financial and Insurance Industry Index slid 0.6 percent, the biggest drop since March 20. Taiwan’s dollar climbed 0.2 percent against the U.S. dollar.
“The benchmark index opened higher today as the rally yesterday ended peacefully, removing fears of violence,” KGI Securities Investment Advisory Co. Chairman Tu Jin-lung said. Financial stocks fell as protesters were still demanding the withdrawal of the services pact, which would boost Taiwanese firms’ access to China’s financial markets, Tu said.
Taiwan’s opposition Democratic Progressive Party has sided with the students in rejecting the trade agreement, which was signed last June and would open up as many as 80 service industries such as banking and e-commerce.
Caucus leaders from ruling and opposition parties failed to reach a consensus during four rounds of talks last week to resolve the impasse, while students rejected an offer to meet with Ma, saying that he’s not interested in genuine dialogue.
Ma, who started his first term as president in 2008, has deepened Taiwan’s economic ties with China, which include a yuan-clearing agreement in 2012 and the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in 2010 that led to the services deal.
The government has promoted the agreement “to ensure Taiwan’s economic vitality and to create conditions conducive to Taiwan’s participation in the process of economic integration in the Asia-Pacific region,” Ma said March 29.
Failure to pass the agreement would cap Taiwan’s economic expansion this year at 2.5 percent, according to Bank of America Corp., which estimates growth of 2.9 percent. The agreement is needed for a deal on goods trade with China as well as a program that would allow the island’s funds to invest yuan directly in China’s onshore markets, Taiwan’s Central Bank Governor Perng Fai-Nan said March 27, referring to its quota for Renminbi Qualified Foreign Institutional Investors.
The trade pact can bring “mutually beneficial, practical benefits” to both Taiwan and China, Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said March 26. He didn’t comment on whether China would be willing to renegotiate.
Protests erupted this month after Ma’s ruling Kuomintang party said the trade deal had cleared committee procedures, which the DPP said violated an earlier agreement to a detailed review of the pact’s provisions. Ma used “black box” tactics to push the deal through, according to the students.
Tensions increased in the early hours of March 24, when policemen used water cannons and batons to disperse protesters, injuring more than 100 people.
President Ma “doesn’t really know why the students are still here,” Meredith Huang, a student-protest leader, said on March 27. “He doesn’t accept what the students want.”
More than 1,000 people also marched in Hong Kong yesterday to support Taiwan’s students, Hong Kong Cable Television reported, citing an estimate by the city’s Federation of Students, which organized the rally.
Wang Yu-chi, minister of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, traveled to Nanjing in February and met with Zhang Zhijun, minister of China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, marking the first official contact between the two governments.
“This is about Taiwan’s fears of the invasion of mainland values,” said Joseph Cheng, a political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong. “It’s a matter of political orientation, not treaty terms.”
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