Taiwan’s Ma Offers to Meet Student Leaders as Dispute Continues

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou said he’s willing to meet protesters in a bid to assuage anger over a China trade pact that’s prompted a weeklong seizure of the legislature and violent clashes with riot police.

Ma is willing to meet the students to discuss the services trade pact as long as there’s no preconditions, his office said in an e-mailed statement yesterday, after the president said earlier he would not hold face-to-face talks. The offer isn’t sincere because Ma continues to obstruct progress between ruling and opposition parties, the student group leading the protests said late last night after earlier saying it would be willing to accept the invitation.

Ma’s offer to meet had pointed to a way out of a crisis that’s tested the president as he battles low popularity. The protests underscore concern in Taiwan about his policy of seeking closer economic ties to China. Demonstrators say the pact will squeeze out Taiwanese companies and make the economy more vulnerable, accusing the ruling party of using heavy-handed tactics to push the pact through the legislature.

Student protesters have demanded the services pact be renegotiated and are calling for a bill to ensure oversight of future deals with China. They also called on Ma to meet with them to answer their demands.

No Consensus

Legislative party leaders failed for a second day yesterday to reach a consensus on how to settle the dispute, KMT caucus deputy leader Alex Fai said by phone. The KMT is willing to vote on the deal line-by-line in a full legislative sitting, he said.

“This afternoon we said we were willing to meet with no preconditions, however news that ruling and opposition party talks collapsed have angered the students,” the student group said in its late-night statement. “Ma continues to use the KMT to obstruct a bill on cross-strait deal oversight, showing that he lacks sincerity.”

The group reiterated calls for ruling and opposition lawmakers to implement a law for a cross-strait monitoring mechanism before handling the services pact controversy.

“We request Ma should first promise to not use party discipline to obstruct KMT legislators from agreeing to our demand for the development of a cross-strait agreement oversight bill,” it said. “Otherwise we see no significance in any meeting.”

Legislative leader Wang Jin-pyng, both a member of Ma’s KMT and a political rival of the president, said earlier this week that the conflict over the services pact originated in the legislative review process and said he’d continue working to resolve the dispute.

Cabinet Compound

Student protesters stormed the legislature, taking control of the chamber, late on March 18 and have occupied it since then. A press conference held by Ma on March 23 failed to address their concerns or soothe their anger, sparking a splinter group of protesters to take over a separate compound which houses the cabinet.

Riot police were called in that same night. They used water cannons, batons and riot shields to beat protesters before retaking the compound by dawn the following day. Those clashes left more than 100 people injured with dozens taken to hospital.

The services trade agreement, signed by cross-strait 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.

“We can have free trade agreements with a lot of countries, but we have to look into the political dimensions of our relationship with China because any economic deal with China is not just economics,” said Nikolas Su, 19, a student who has attended the occupation at the legislature. “I am worried that these deals will lead us toward unification, and we will have no choices later.”

Closer Ties

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 the amount 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 in 1949.

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