Taiwan's Occupy Moment

Following prolonged unrest, disaffected youth occupy the legislature. Inspired by this, thousands more pour on to the streets, a rising tide of humanity, angry at a government they feel has marginalised them and ignored their needs.

The place, this time, is Taiwan, and the people are angry at government plans to push through a contentious trade deal with China without proper review by the national legislature, or Legislative Yuan. The ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (AKA the “Kuomintang” or KMT), claims the deal is essential for economic growth, whilst protesters and the opposition parties contend the deal with China, which refuses to acknowledge Taiwan as an independent country, threatens the island nation’s sovereignty.

Such debates between pro-China and pro-independence groups are common in Taiwanese politics, although few in recent history have been as dramatic as this: following a rushed review of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement by the KMT-dominated Legislative Yuan on Tuesday 17 March, students conduct a sit-in protest in the legislature demanding a more stringent review with greater transparency.

The following Friday saw thousands rallying in the capital, Taipei, in support of the sit-in protest. Meanwhile, a number of institutions at the National Tsing-Hua and National Taipei Universities broke ranks with the government, closing their doors in support of the students.

Escalating tensions, a small group of protesters broke into government headquarters, the Executive Yuan, over the weekend resulting in police eviction of them, and protesters in neighbouring streets, using water cannon in scenes reminiscent of Taiwan’s KMT-dictatorship era. How did it come to this?

Current unrest notwithstanding, Taiwan has been one of the success stories of Asian development post-World War Two. Following Japan’s surrender of Taiwan at the end of WWII, the island was administered by the KMT government of the then Republic of China (ROC). At the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, mainland China became the communist People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan became a self-governing jurisdiction under the control of the retreating KMT forces.

Today, Taiwanese living standards are high relative to neighbouring countries; if it were recognised as a sovereign country, Taiwan would be listed as the world’s eighteenth largest economy. Moreover, in spite of its authoritarian origins under KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek, modern Taiwan has blossomed into a pluralistic democracy with free and independent media coverage. Freedom House, a global, pro-democracy non profit, has rated Taiwan as one of only three liberal democracies in East Asia, alongside Japan and South Korea.

There is a real threat however that Taiwan’s progress could be lost. Since coming to power in 2008, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jieo of the KMT has pursued increasing economic integration of Taiwan with China, beginning with the Economic Co-operation Framework Agreement in 2010.

Many Taiwanese companies have benefited from increasing ease of cross-strait business: Foxconn, a Taiwanese company involved in the assembly of Apple products, has many lucrative factories in China, as does Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation, the world’s largest producer of semiconductors.

Economic gains may however come at the expense of political freedom. The Ma Administration claims increasing economic exchange between Taiwan and China will increase the two countries’ reliance upon one another, reducing the risk of conflict.

A quick glance at trade figures suggests a far more one-sided reality. Exports to China represented 40% of total exports in 2013, up from 35% in 2008, when President Ma was elected. At the same time, Chinese exports to Taiwan as a proportion of its total did not increase at all, stable at a paltry 2%. The situation in Taiwanese foreign investment is equally dire, with investments in China representing as much as 80% of all foreign investment, up from an already-high 70% in 2008.

It is impossible that this dependency will not spill out from Taiwan’s economic sphere into its political one. The Chinese know this: in addition to courting the political elite, there are increasing reports China is attempting to woo Taiwanese businesspeople, in what may be considered attempts to “soften up” Taiwan ahead of any future Chinese attempt at annexation. After all, where stomachs go, hearts will eventually follow.

The Ma Administration has been blithely ignorant to these risks. Despite the alarming level of China-dependency, no serious effort has been made to increase trade, for example, with the ASEAN countries (which have a collective economy larger than China’s), nor with the United States or Japan; whilst the KMT scrambles to secure deals with China, it has indicated it may be as late as 2020 before participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade pact would be seriously considered.

The administration’s other actions have done little to allay fears over its China policies. As part of the ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, currently administered by Japan but also claimed by China and Taiwan, a 2012 Taiwanese Coast Guard mission was sent to plant a flag on the islands, asserting Taiwanese (i.e. Republic of China) sovereignty. Incredibly, the boats claimed to leave “in such a hurry”, there was no time to obtain a Taiwanese flag, having to make do with a five-starred one from the People’s Republic (as if a foreign country’s flag would happen to be just lying around a coast guard base).

More recently, government revisions to the national high school history texts have come under criticism for an alleged change in focus that glorifies Taiwan’s China-connections whilst marginalising Taiwanese culture and history. A case in point is the textbooks’ dropping of references to “People’s Republic of China” in favour of the term “the Mainland”, as if Taiwan were a Chinese colony.

In light of this grim outlook it is perhaps useful for Taiwanese to be reminded why independence is worth fighting for. The best argument for Taiwanese independence is of course that it already is; lack of directions from “the Mainland” does not appear to have adversely affected social or economic progress.

Taiwan’s hard-won political freedoms are also under threat. One only need look at Hong Kong to see the “China effect” upon democracy. “One country, two systems”, the phrase spouted by Chinese officials to re-assure Hong Kong residents wary of political interference from Beijing is rapidly becoming “Our country, our system”.

Also at stake is preservation of Taiwanese language and the myriad languages and cultures of indigenous minorities that make up 20% of the island’s population. Whilst inroads have been made into minority rights in recent years, a return to Chinese rule would be accompanied by renewed cultural suppression. Cultural imperialism is a primary modus operandi for the Chinese regime, as evidenced by the massive, government-promoted influx of Han Chinese into China’s Tibet and Xinjinag provinces, suppressing local identities and, thus, anti-China dissent.

Taiwanese independence however, cannot be considered in a vacuum: China has threatened on many occasions to invade if steps are made towards formal independence, arguing Taiwanese independence threatens Chinese security. In this scenario, Taiwanese independence is part of a strategy by the US to “contain” China with allied countries.

In the nuclear age of course, China has little to fear. It’s inflation of the military threat draws attention away from the real threat posed by Taiwan, and the reason why China has vowed eventually to eliminate Taiwan as a political entity: a prosperous, democratic country composed predominately of people with Chinese ancestry would fly in the face of the regime’s assertion that their authoritarian governmental system is the only one suitable for Chinese people.

Politically inconvenient for China as it might be, Taiwan has a right to determine its own future: a fact punctuated by the conviction of the recent protests. For Taiwan’s part, it is time a national dialogue was started, to recognise and celebrate their unique identity and independence.

Economically and diplomatically, Taiwan should seek to reduce their dependence upon China. Recent moves by Japan to negotiate a memorandum of understanding, along the lines of the US Congress’ US-Taiwan Relations Act promoting economic, cultural and military exchange, should be welcomed. It is also time Taiwan stopped aping China in making anachronistic territorial claims against neighbouring countries; this serves only to alienate countries, such as the Philippines and Japan, whilst would otherwise be inclined to side with Taiwan against an expansionist China.

As the last few weeks have shown, if Taiwanese politicians are unwilling to assert economic and political independence in legislation, then the people will do it for them on the street. As one protester declared: “without democracy we have nothing.”

Full Disclosure: In addition to being a proud, first-generation Australian, your correspondent is Taiwanese and hopes one day to be a dual-citizen: of Australia and an independent Taiwan.

Note: This article appeared in the Edition 5 of Woroni, which was published on Tuesday 22nd April.