TAIPEI—Tens of thousands of people gathered for a protest outside Taiwan’s Presidential Office Building in downtown Taipei on Sunday, stepping up pressure on President Ma Ying-jeou to re-examine a trade deal with Beijing that has sparked an occupation of the legislature by students for nearly two weeks.
Sunday’s protest is the latest demonstration since the unilateral passage of the trade pact by the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party, or the Kuomintang, during a first reading without bipartisan deliberation on March 17. The protesters, who say the negotiations between Taipei and Beijing weren’t transparent and are worried China will exert more control over Taiwan’s economy, aim to tap into growing skepticism over increasing cross-Strait economic ties and Taipei’s rapprochement with Beijing since President Ma took office in 2008.
The protesters, dressed in black and wearing yellow headbands that said “Taiwan, No Services Trade Deal,” were largely peaceful and disciplined. There were families with baby strollers, and dogs dressed by their owners in black at the demonstration, which also featured street performances and people chanting slogans to the tune of “Do you hear the people sing?” from the Les Misérables musical.
Taipei’s weather was balmy early Sunday, before becoming drizzly and windy toward evening. Crowds continued to grow hours after the rally started and sprawled toward the central bank building, several blocks away from the Presidential Office Building. Some nearby subway stations were shut to divert the crowds.
Protest organizers said 500,000 people attended Sunday’s sit-in. Taipei police said there were 116,000 protesters.
At the heart of the protests is the Cross-Strait Service in Trade Agreement signed between Taipei and Beijing last year. The pact, according to the Taiwan government, will help the economy become more competitive by opening service industries such as banking, health care and food catering to companies across the Taiwan Strait.
“We are not against a trade pact with China, nor closer business ties with China. What we are against is a lack of transparency. We want a negotiation process in which everyone sitting here will have a chance to take part,” Chen Wei-ting, one of the student leaders behind the demonstration, told the crowd.
Chen Deming, China’s chief negotiator in the trade talks with Taiwan, said Sunday he would be “deeply regretful” if the pact isn’t passed in Taiwan, according to the Xinhua News Agency. The economies of Taiwan and China are “highly complementary” and the deal could boost Taiwan’s economy, Mr. Chen was quoted as saying.
Opponents of the trade deal also say the agreement will favor conglomerates and leave small- to medium-size enterprises in Taiwan struggling to compete.
The protesters’ demands include a retraction of the pact and setting up a mechanism to oversee all cross-Strait deals.
“Taiwanese people are in doubt and anxious about, not afraid of, the trade pact. It all started as opposition against the lack of transparency, then it grew into opposition against China and also Taiwan’s government,” said Evelyn Chiang, 32, a Taiwanese working in Singapore as a marketing researcher who flew in on Sunday morning to join the rally.
Huang Sheng-chao, a 51-year-old noodle-shop vendor, said: “This is not a question of right or wrong because both sides make a valid point. But I am against the pact because the government hasn’t fully convinced me that I, an ordinary citizen running a small business, can benefit from it. I have been waiting for an explanation for a while.”
Mr. Ma has said the deal would pave way to other regional trade deals including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and that the demonstrators’ concerns are unfounded.
He said a failure to pass the pact would damage Taiwan’s reputation as a trade partner, and could be a setback to its relationship with China, which has warmed in recent years. “Taiwan’s democracy didn’t come easy. I urged the students to respect the constitution, give the legislature back to the people,” the president said in a statement.
Lin Jih-wen, a political-science professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, said: “Like it or not, the pact will be passed because the KMT has the majority in the legislature. So the question is not if, but how it will be passed. It remains to be seen if the government will empathize with the people at the risk of upsetting Beijing.”
Since Taiwan and China split some 60 years ago, the Taiwan Strait has been a perennial flash point in the region, with Beijing vowing to reclaim the self-ruled island by force if necessary. But tensions have eased since Mr. Ma took office, with the two sides increasing communications and trade.
However, a student-led movement against the trade pact, dubbed the “sunflower movement,” started two weeks ago after a ruling Chinese Nationalist Party lawmaker announced the completion of a first reading of the pact at a review session without bipartisan discussion.
In response, a group of university students stormed into the legislative building and took over the main meeting chamber. On March 23, hundreds of more hawkish students stormed the cabinet compound. Antiriot police used water cannons to dispel them, injuring more than 100, including policemen. The movement has since then attracted more supporters, with as many as 20,000 protesters holding the legislative building at one point.
Mr. Ma, who is also chairman of the KMT, on March 25 offered to meet with the students to hear their concerns. However, students refused to meet and demanded a guarantee from Mr. Ma that he won’t take disciplinary action against any KMT legislators who support their cause.
As the deadlock between the government and protesters drags on, some people in Taiwan have urged the protesters to retreat from the legislative building and let lawmakers go back to work.
Some also say the benefits of the trade pact will likely outweigh the risks, giving Taiwan’s sluggish economy a boost it needs.
Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research, a government think tank, said earlier the agreement could add 12,000 jobs to Taiwan’s services sector, with the biggest beneficiaries being retail and storage sectors. It could also add around 0.025-0.034 percentage point to Taiwan’s gross domestic product, the think tank said.
Taiwan’s government said it would earmark nearly US$3 billion to help small and medium enterprises survive or transform themselves in the face of rising competition from China. But Luo Wei, an economist at Fubon Financial Holdings Co. 2881.TW 0.00% , among other economists, said small businesses are concerned over the scant details of the plan.
“Due to globalization and Taiwan’s maturing market, those SMEs are facing a tougher business environment whether there is a services trade pact with China or not. But they just don’t know how they will be assisted, of course they are against the deal,” Mr. Luo said.
By Jenny W. Hsu, March 30, 2014 in The Wall Street Journal