Say Goodbye to China's ‘Peaceful Unification’

Say Goodbye to ‘Peaceful Unification’
Image Credit: J. Michael Cole for The Diplomat

Taiwanese youth have demonstrated that on issues that matter to their lives and way of life, they are fully capable of standing up to the authorities, putting to rest the belief that they are apolitical pushovers whom Beijing could buy off with the latest iPhone. Above all, they have driven home the reality that on matters that directly pertain to cross-strait relations, Beijing can be completely powerless to influence developments in Taiwan.

First, let’s look at the future. They are the tens of thousands of people nationwide who have joined the Sunflower Movement to express their opposition to the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which critics say was negotiated in secret and was never properly reviewed by the legislative branch and civil society (which was for the most part was excluded from the process). Since its signing in Shanghai in June 2013, opponents of the pact have raised fears about its impact on the island’s services industry and of the political consequences of opening several sectors — from construction to telecommunications — to investment by an authoritarian regime that does not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty.

The Sunflower Movement, which held a successful protest on March 30, attracting about 350,000 people, came into being following several months of government unwillingness to take input from critics into account. For many months prior to the current impasse, one of the main precursor groups, the Black Island Youth Alliance, had held peaceful protests and information sessions across the country, but was not allowed to attend the public hearings organized by the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT).

While the CSSTA became the catalyst for the events of March 18 and the occupation a week later of the Executive Yuan, the principal cause of the snowballing protests is growing disillusionment with government institutions that Taiwanese feel have failed them and now operate for the sole benefit of a narrow few on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

The movement, a student-led organization, has received support from numerous prominent academics, lawyers, and NGOs. Although it has found common cause with the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in opposing the pact, the movement has operated independently of the party. (Prior to the crisis, its members often accused the DPP of ignoring them, and civil society in general.) Tellingly, the Sunflower Movement is comprised of individuals from all of Taiwan’s ethnic groups, a healthy departure from longstanding party politics on the island. Furthermore, its principal ideology is an amalgam of economic pragmatism and “civic nationalism.” Despite what their detractors are claiming, its members have studied the contents of the trade pact very closely and could hold their own in any debate on the matter. The leadership comes from the nation’s top universities and includes the rich and the poor, KMT and DPP voters, and many who are not of voting age. Two of the movement’s young leaders, Lin Fei-fan and Chen Wei-ting, have demonstrated extraordinary oratory skills and have performed brilliantly under tremendous stress, media scrutiny, or when debating top government officials.

A quick walk around the site is sufficient to realize that the legislative compound has turned into a giant open-air classroom, where subjects from economics to democracy are taught and debated amid live musical performances and an ocean of banners, posters, and placards. The scene is orderly and includes numerous chemical toilets, Internet spots, medical clinics, pharmacies, food services, temporary living quarters, and even a hairdresser. Trash is promptly collected, and crowd control is efficient (frustratingly so for journalists who want to snoop around). Inside the legislature, students have created a virtual media center providing commentary in several languages and live video via Internet platforms, such as Facebook.

Despite a few hiccups, such as the occupation of the Executive Yuan on March 24-25, which led to a muscular — and not uncontroversial — crackdown by riot police, the public has rallied behind the young protesters and their demands, with 63 percent of the public wanting the pact be scrapped and renegotiated. For his part, President Ma Ying-jeou, whose popularity stands at about 9 percent, has refused to meet the movement’s demands and, according to some observers, has acted with growing authoritarianism.

Taiwanese youth have demonstrated that on issues that matter to their lives and way of life, they are fully capable of standing up to the authorities, putting to rest the belief that they are apolitical pushovers whom Beijing could buy off with the latest iPhone. Above all, they have driven home the reality that on matters that directly pertain to cross-strait relations, Beijing can be completely powerless to influence developments in Taiwan.

As the crisis deepens, President Ma has grown increasingly powerless and isolated. The divide between the many factions within his party has become starker and could eventually result in pressure for him to make the necessary concessions to defuse the crisis, which would be a major blow to his reputation in Beijing. Already, the crisis has probably spelled the end of any future pacts with China between now and 2016, when Ma must step down.

But some people won’t accept that. Enter the past, which manifested itself on April 1 with a counter-protest organized by Chang An-le, or “White Wolf,” a gangster who returned to Taiwan in June 2013 after seventeen years in exile. Chang, leader of the Unification Party, is believed by many to be an instrument of United Front work for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) who tirelessly advocates for “peaceful unification” under the “one country, two systems” model used for Hong Kong — a model that is failing to work in the former British colony, as is increasingly evident.

READ ENTIRE ARTICLE HERE: http://thediplomat.com/2014/04/say-goodbye-to-peaceful-unification/

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