The student leaders of Taiwan’s Sunflower movement, having occupied the legislative chambers in the capital of Taipei for the past three weeks, recently announced plans for demonstrators to vacate the floor of the Legislative Yuan on April 10. The students have been expressing their strong reservations about the proposed Cross-Strait Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) between Taiwan and mainland China, which they fear would bring Taiwan too firmly into Beijing’s economic orbit.
The announced departure date happens to be the very date that the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) was enacted by the United States government 35 years ago—after Washington’s break in diplomatic relations with Taipei and the diplomatic recognition of Beijing by the Carter administration. The TRA is seen historically as “the cornerstone” which laid the foundation for that evolution to democracy that made today’s Sunflower movement possible. The decision by the students to declare victory and go home appears to have assured a nonviolent resolution to the almost one month stand-off. Whatever one’s views are of the proposed TiSA, this peaceful outcome is certainly a positive development.
Some used heated rhetoric in discussing the student occupation of the Legislative Yuan in Taipei (since March 18) and the forced entry (on March 23) of demonstrators into the Executive Yuan. There were even those who compared these events to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 or to the recent upheaval in Ukraine. The public debate in Taiwan over the desirability of ratification by the legislature of the TiSA, however, has more in common with the ongoing controversy in the United States over the Affordable Care Act than with the bloody acts of the repressive regimes in place at the time in Beijing and Kiev.
As with the TiSA, Obamacare has generated extensive public debate for an extended period of time. When the measure was put to a vote in the House of Representatives during a weekend session in March 2010, a large crowd opposed to the legislation gathered on the grounds outside the Capitol. This crowd was loud and spontaneous, chanting at one point “Nancy, Nancy,” for then House speaker Pelosi to come outside and address them. The speaker walked through the crowd on her way to the Capitol for the vote, carrying the speaker’s gavel in a display of her authority. No physical contact, however, was allowed with her or the members who accompanied her on her walk. The House’s sergeant-at-arms assured that order was maintained in the chamber during the highly controversial vote. The vote was strictly along party lines, 219-212, and the majority party prevailed. The Capitol police were on duty to assure no demonstrators disrupted the legislative proceedings The disappointed Republican minority had its revenge during the elections the following November.
This is how democracy is supposed to function: opposition views may be expressed in legislative debate and by demonstrators exercising their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly outside of the legislative body while the vital business of government proceeds inside. The ballot box is the ultimate test of the correctness of government policy. And the example holds some lessons for the newer democracy on Taiwan.
Nothing concrete can be achieved when the law-making body of a democracy is paralyzed and occupied by outside elements, no matter how sincere their intent. The business of a legislature is to debate the merits of a proposal and to legislate via an up-or-down vote. The government in Taipei, in this regard, has expressed its willingness “to engage in democratic rational dialogue with all who hold differing views” on the TiSA, while at the same time seeking to uphold the rule of law. But breaking into the Executive Yuan offices and smashing file cabinets required the use of law enforcement to restore order, a legitimate exercise of authority as in any democracy.
To end the students’ occupation of the legislative chamber and restore legislative operations as soon as possible, the ruling KMT Party and the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) engaged in internal negotiations on the legislative procedures necessary to end the dispute. In addition, President Ma Ying-jeou clearly indicated on March 25 his willingness to invite representatives of the protesting students, without preconditions, to the Presidential Office to let them express their concerns to him directly—an example of an official response to grassroots democracy.
Since the TiSA was signed in June 2013, the government in Taipei has sought to address the protesters’ concerns, including any potential adverse impact on Taiwan’s economy or the potential for greater interference by mainland China in Taiwan’s affairs, through 20 public hearings held in the Legislative Yuan and 110 forums with affected industries and business leaders, conducted by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Mainland Affairs Council. These procedures were reportedly transparent and comprehensive. Far from being an “unequal treaty” as some have asserted, the TiSA has been designed to enhance Taiwan’s trade competitiveness and to further the goal of facilitating Taiwan’s regional economic integration in such multilateral organizations as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).
The occupying students expressed concern over the legislative review process of the TiSA. They have won a commitment from the majority (KMT) party for a legislative review and vote on the TiSA article by article. The student leaders then sensibly concluded it was time for them to declare victory and go home. Some irreconcilable elements are reportedly contending that the TiSA must be rejected in its entirety even if this appears to contradict the will of the public at large. But the student leadership has apparently heeded the view of Winston Churchill that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried.” And the 35th anniversary of the passage of the TRA seems an appropriate date to put rule of law in Taiwan back on track.
Dennis P. Halpin is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS and a former Asian affairs advisor to the House Foreign Affairs Committee.