Page 1 of 2 What's going on in Taiwan?
By Peter Lee
The ineluctable drift of Taiwan outside of the People's Republic of China's political orbit, with a helping shove from Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Part (DPP), that's what's going on.
On March 18, on the occasion of the Crimean referendum, I wrote a piece speculating on what would happen if the United States decided to support a Maidan-style insurrection against an elected but unpopular and pro-Chinese administration in Taiwan.
Well, mirabile dictu, on the same day the insurrection appeared... but no US support, as yet, anyway.
The occasion was the occupation of the Republic of China
legislature by student activists determined to prevent passage of the "Cross Strait Services Trade Agreement" (hereinafter CSSTA) between the ROC and the PRC, climaxed by a big demonstration against the pact in Taipei on March 30.
The CSSTA opens various Taiwan and PRC service industries to mutual investment. It is a piece of neo-liberal free trade bullshit whose advantages to Taiwan's economy have probably been oversold. It will provide some windfall profits for some Taiwanese fat cats in the financial services sector as PRC money floods in, but will probably do little to boost wages and employment, or get the Taiwanese economy out of its overall economic rut.
The dangers of the pact, both to Taiwanese small businesses and as a piece of ominous Trojan-horse legislation meant to enable a mainland takeover of Taiwan, have probably also been oversold. The political significance of the pact appears primarily as a continuation of the usual process of buying the loyalty of local millionaires that has been neo-capitalist China's stock in trade ever since it ditched class struggle and showered opportunities on Li Ka-Shing and other Hong Kong plutocrats in order to grease the skids for the PRC's absorption of the British territory in 1997.
The immediate reason that the CSSTA has precipitated a political crisis in the ROC is that the main opposition party, the DPP, decided it wanted to precipitate a political crisis over the CSSTA. The DPP, which grew out of an underground organization of Taiwan independence activists brutally suppressed by the Kuomintang (KMT), has not quite outgrown its conspiratorial roots and is addicted to pushing the political boundaries in order to punch above its weight (the DPP-led alliance commands the loyalty of about 45% of Taiwan's voters) and get its way.
The dysfunctional character of the ROC's constitution offers ample opportunities for mischief.
The Constitution of the Republic of China is not, it is safe to say, some of Sun Yat-sen's best work. It was adequate to the task of creating a rubber-stamp legislature in a single-party state, as the ROC was for the first 40 years of its tenure on Taiwan, but it is completely not up to the job of accommodating intensely adversarial partisan politics. And to describe the relationship between the ruling KMT - born of the mainland occupation in 1949 - and the DPP - which emerged from the independence struggle of Taiwanese indigenes - as adversarial is putting it mildly.
Particularly in the contentious issue of "cross strait ties" ie negotiating agreements between the PRC and the ROC, the powers of the Executive Yuan to unilaterally conclude agreements and the authority of the Legislative Yuan to review those agreements has not been clearly defined. Instead, the review and approval of these agreements has been a matter of ad hoc jockeying and palavering between the "Blue" KMT-centered and "Green" DPP-centered parties.
The KMT has enough votes in the legislature (65 out of 113) to pass anything it wants to. For the CSSTA, in order to provide a veneer of comity and consensus to the proceedings, President Ma Ying-jeou's administration agreed to hold a series of hearings on the bill before it came to a vote.
Fatally, the inter-party negotiations were put in the hands of the speaker of the legislature, the KMT's own Wang Jin-pyng. Wang, a native Taiwanese politician from the DPP's southern stronghold and a failed presidential candidate, turned out to be a KINO (KMT in Name Only), and for reasons either of principle, ambition, or cussedness, concluded a generous agreement with the DPP that allowed for a series of 16 public hearings followed by a line-by-line review of the agreement in the Home Affairs Committee.
The DPP, which loathes the unilateral outreach of the KMT to the mainland and longs for a politically advantageous crisis, seized the opportunity Wang gave them to drag out the public hearings for over six months, even though the constitution stipulates that any executive order that isn't acted on by the legislature automatically takes effect after three months.
The measure of Ma Ying-jeou's anger was that he orchestrated Wang's expulsion from the KMT and removal from his speakership; an indication of the profound dysfunction of Taiwanese politics is that Wang obtained a court stay to keep his job and has been decidedly obstructionist with respect to the KMT's desperate attempt to keep a lid on the CSSTA debate in the legislature as the process dragged on, suspicions and concerns were indefatigably advertised, and concerns of the public at large concerning the lack of transparency surrounding this rather insignificant agreement snowballed.
Matters reached their sorry climax in mid-March as the DPP attempted to take control of the Home Affairs Committee rostrum in order to set the agenda for the line-by-line review and further drag out the process. The KMT resolved that it would draw the line with the DPP, use the three-month review stipulation to declare that the Home Affairs Committee involvement in the pact was over, and the KMT-dominated legislature could finally vote on it.
On March 17, after the usual partisan roughhousing - including a battle over control of the precious microphone that allowed remarks to be put on the record - the KMT claimed its point man had successfully seized the mike (or, the DPP alleged, a bogus mike from another meeting room since it claimed to have seized all the legitimate mikes) and announced that the pact was now in the hands of the legislature.
The DPP responded by supporting a move by student activists to occupy the legislature.
The combination of "students" and "political demonstrations" emerged to work its political and media magic once again and, to be fair, it appears that students still enjoy their special aura of perceived selflessness and moral rectitude in Taiwan, as in other parts of the world. As the occupation dragged on, on March 30, a crowd of somewhere between 116,000 (police estimate) and 500,000 (organizers), apparently aggressively organized by the DPP but also, I expect, containing quite a few people dissatisfied with the policy dysfunction and economic failure of the Ma presidency and supportive of the students, congregated peacefully in front of the presidential building.
The irony of students occupying the legislature to block a democratic vote in the name of democracy - or for that matter, the irony of the leader of the student activists issuing ultimatums to the ROC's elected president in the name of democracy - was lost on pretty much everybody.