The Economist: Sunflower sutra
MA YING-JEOU, Taiwan’s president, is no doubt relieved. After three weeks occupying the debating chamber of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, student protesters agreed on April 7th to end their sit-in within three days. Demonstrators have fought with riot police, and some have been injured; hundreds of thousands converged on the presidential office on March 30th. But signs of disunity are appearing in Mr Ma’s ruling party, the Kuomintang (or KMT). And relations with China are in danger of cooling.
The students’ occupation of parliament was in a bid to prevent the passage of an agreement allowing for freer trade in services with China. They argue that the pact was negotiated in secret and will allow China to gain greater political control over the island. One of their main demands was for a law allowing for greater public oversight of such cross-strait agreements, to be implemented before this particular services pact is passed. On April 3rd Mr Ma’s cabinet partially responded to this demand by approving a bill for monitoring such pacts with China—but still did not agree to the idea of enacting it first. It was only on April 6th, when Taiwan’s parliamentary speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, pledged to halt review of the services deal until such a law was enacted that the students agreed to call it a day.
Mr Wang’s promise (made, to much media fanfare, during a visit to the students in the debating chamber) was glaringly at odds with the stance of Mr Ma’s administration. Mr Ma’s spokeswoman, Garfie Li, said she had no idea that Mr Wang, a powerful figure in the KMT, had planned to say this. The cabinet’s spokesman, Sun Lih-chyun, did not agree with this pledge. It is unclear what will happen next. Officials say passage of the services pact, which opens sensitive industries including telecommunications and publishing to Chinese investment, is vital for Taiwan’s economic development and its participation in some regional trade blocs. But other observers say that Mr Ma risks isolating himself within the fractured KMT if he exerts more pressure on lawmakers to pass the contentious pact. The opposition and many Taiwanese, fearful of greater economic integration with China, still firmly support Mr Wang’s pledge. And not all students are ready to leave the chamber.
Some students say Mr Wang’s high-profile visit also generated expectations among the public that the protests would soon end. Even before his promise, a poll conducted between April 2nd and 3rd by TVBS, a broadcaster, suggested that many Taiwanese are weary of parliamentary paralysis. Fully 43% opposed the services pact—but more than half (56%) thought the students should either end their protest or take it to another venue. Oliver Chen, a student spokesman, says that their protest has now gained enough influence, but also that students are wilting. “Our comrades are really tired. We are physically and spiritually exhausted.”
Mr Ma and Mr Wang are bitter enemies. Their animosity intensified after Mr Ma attempted to expel Mr Wang from the party last September. Last month a court ruled in Mr Wang’s favour, allowing him to keep his party membership. Liu Bih-rong, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei, thinks Mr Wang is trying to win kudos for resolving the crisis in order to shore up his power. This would allow him eventually to challenge Mr Ma for dominance in the KMT ahead of presidential elections in 2016. If the monitoring bill is passed before the services pact, as Mr Wang has pledged, protracted parliamentary negotiations—and the possibility that the pact could be scrapped altogether—would seriously hurt Mr Ma’s credibility with China. Already nine months have passed since Taiwan and China concluded the pact.
Mr Ma, who has been in power since 2008, has staked both Taiwan’s economic recovery and his political legacy on the historic detente he has fostered with the mainland. A landmark visit by China’s minister for Taiwan affairs, Zhang Zhijun, planned for this month, has been postponed, say Taiwanese government officials. The trip would have been the first formal visit to Taiwan from a mainland official since 1949. The invitation to visit Taiwan was extended by Taiwan’s mainland minister when the two met in Nanjing nearly two months ago in the first meeting between Taiwanese and Chinese officials since the Chinese civil war. China watchers say the government in Beijing wants to see the services pact approved before it considers any other form of rapprochement, such as a proposed deal to liberalise the cross-strait goods trade. Mr Ma's dream of meeting China’s leader, Xi Jinping, before the end of his presidential term in 2016, may have become a little more distant.