My recent family visit to Taiwan coincided with the last two days of national protests against a trade agreement between Taiwan and Mainland China that was railroaded through the national legislature in March. Protests erupted when the ruling Nationalist Party (KMT), which controls both the legislature and the presidency, reneged on its earlier commitment to a clause-by-clause review of the omnibus Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA).
The pro-Independence opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had tried to use this vetting process to delay passage of the trade pact. But all parliamentary jockeying came to an abrupt end on March 17th. That’s when KMT lawmaker Chang Ching-Chung walked out of the chamber with the 170-page draft legislation and returned a mere 30 seconds later to announce that the CCSTA had just been signed into law by President Ma Ying-jeoh; the bill’s 90-day review period had expired, so it could now bypass the legislature altogether and take effect with just executive order. (For a blow by blow of the CCSTA’s fortunes since June of last year, check out the comprehensive summary in The Diplomat e-zine).
March 18th, Taiwanese students stormed the gates of the national legislature, starting what would end up as a three-week-long occupation. From the very beginning, they really had their act together. They expounded their case from two lecterns that they’d set up adjacent to the parliamentary hall. There were press releases, translated into multiple languages. Academics, politicians and doctors rallied to support the demonstrators with teach-ins, and donations of food, cash and medical care. The students even drew up a draft bill of their own stipulating an open access review of the CSSTA and all future agreements with Mainland China before such pacts could become law.
Such rules are sorely needed. Even now, the full 170-page CSSTA text has not been made public. This is a common, albeit increasingly resented, feature of “free” trade agreements in general, as witnessed by the stiff opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership from the U.S. Congress and civil society. But in Taiwan the anxiety is far more acute when it comes to trade deals specifically with China, which are seen by many as a dominating neighbor keen on annexing their country.
The CSSTA would open up 64 of Taiwan’s service sectors to Chinese investment, including real estate, telecommunications, advertising, print and retail. The prospect of mainland control over telecommunications, advertising and print raises fears of increased censorship and a pro-Unification propaganda blitz. Many are concerned that allowing Chinese to invest in real estate and retail could open the door for mass mainland immigration, potentially tilting the island’s demographics and electorate in China’s favor.
These fears are the qualms of protesting students alone. Eventually, half a million Taiwanese from all walks of life gathered around the legislature building to show support – incredible in a country of just 23 million. The demonstration is considered to be the largest in Taiwan during the last 20 years.
Finally, on the 20th day of protests, the speaker of the parliament, Wang Jin-pyng of the KMT, met with students in the legislature chamber and committed to creating an advance oversight mechanism for the CSSTA and all future trade agreements with China. The demonstrators took him at his word, despite equivocations from Ma’s presidential office and other KMT big shots, suggesting a major rift within the ruling party leadership. The students decided to evacuate the legislature building three days later, reserving the right to return if the KMT again went back on its commitment.
Here are some pictures I took of the students’ evacuation of the building (To see pictures from the last day of the occupation encampment, check my next post).
A Taiwanese nativist sells betel nut and t-shirts. The slogans read “This is my own country, I’ll save it myself” in Chinese and “Fuck the government” in English.
Two supporters chat before joining the rally to cheer students as they leave the building. The sign in front indicates that this is day 24 of the students’ occupation.
Girls photograph police barricades hung with lilies and sunflowers. Lilies were the symbol of a 1990 student movement urging establishment of multiparty democracy in martial-law Taiwan. The sunflower came to be a symbol of the current movement the morning of March 18th when students occupying the legislative hall woke to find a box of sunflowers –a regular delivery from a florist. Police barricades were all over the premises during this protest. Some were even bolted right into the tarmac so that they could not be removed.
A mother brings a shirt to get spray painted for her daughter who is studying abroad. Thousands joined international rallies overseas in support of the Taiwanese student movement.
A man checks messages left by protestors.
News media set up in the streets to report on the event.
A Taiwanese heavy metal star took the podium to cheer on the demonstrators.
Two Tainan art students gather material for an art project. Their artist statement says that they want to “document the spirit of the protestors within the sunflower movement.”
Police watch over a student conclave in the courtyard in front of the legislature building. The police response, as documented by demonstrators, has been marked with intermittent outbursts of extreme brutality. A lady was boxed in the face; another old lady was thrown to the ground and kicked in the stomach by a policeman yelling, “I own you.” (For a comprehensive write up on police brutality at the protests, check out this post by New York-based magazine, n+1).
The day of the final rally, as students emerged from the legislature building, their line of march along Ji Nan Street was so packed with supporters that movement organizers had to tape a narrow strip of white parchment along the tarmac to eke out a path for the departing occupiers.
A holiday mood prevailed as two MCs entertained onlookers ahead of the students’ scheduled emergence. Near me an elementary school math teacher finished up some grading.
A few minutes before the students marched down the aisle, the MC handed out sunflowers to the people in the front row and, over the loudspeaker, called on “Everyone that has a flower, to please pass it back to the people behind you.” The object was to disseminate these symbols of the movement right through the crowd, into greater Taipei and onward to down-island compatriots… “To Taichung, Kaohsiung, Pingtung; to every corner of Taiwan – to light up all the areas still in darkness.”
The idea sounded corny and was slow to catch on, but soon more and more sunflowers got passed along. “Everyone, thank your neighbor as you pass the flowers,” the MC intoned. And, sure enough, everyone was presently passing flowers, nodding to each other in solidarity. A lady in yellow to my left started tearing up. The eyes of a five-year-old up front lit up as she reached out again and again for flowers.
And just then the parade of students emerged from the legislature along the make-shift white paper aisle through the crowd. They were crying. So were many of the onlookers.
So it only remained to roll the credits. The MC proceeded to list all the NGOs, professors and philanthropists who helped with the movement – over 70 names in all. “This wasn’t created by just the two guys that the media keeps referring to, Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-tin,” he stressed.
And well I could believe it, just judging from incredibly smooth coordination. Food, sleeping bags, tents, extension cords, cleaning supplies all somehow appeared right in time. Monetary donations, online and in-person, were raised to feed the demonstrators, pay for electricity and cleaning supplies, reimburse travel expenses for out-of-town supporters, even take out a page-ad in the New York Times.
The impressive level of organization suggested that this wasn’t really a spontaneous movement but a political moment that all the 70 names mentioned really worked hard to make matter; the Sunflower Revolution and its 24-day-occupation of the legislature was a major litmus test for gauging whether there was enough support for changing Taiwan’s political status quo.