A protester holds a banner depicting Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou as Hitler during a massive protest in Taipei, Sunday. Pic: AP.

Proposed trade agreement sparks anti-Beijing backlash, writes Asia Sentinel’s Jens Kastner

The students who have taken over Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan to fight a yet-to-be ratified service trade agreement with China in what has come to be called the “sunflower occupation” have to be shaking up the councils in Beijing.

The students’ activism in Taiwan has touched off an island-wide reaction against closer ties with China, with a crowd estimated anywhere between 100,000 and half a million taking to the streets Sunday in front of the Presidential Office. It was the biggest protest since Taiwan became a democracy in 1996 and reflects not so much concerns about the trade pact but anger and frustration over the Kuomintang government and local conglomerates inviting Beijing’s continuing encroachment on Taiwan’s media, politics and business.

It also reflects the fact that China still has no idea how to reach out beyond Taiwan’s politicians and business elites to its general public, who remain distrustful of the mainland government despite lucrative trade deals and the carrot and stick approach of its notorious United Front, which combines threats of war with nurturing the presence of indigenous China sympathizers. It is much the same in Hong Kong, where a favorable trade deal and other perks have done little or nothing to engender trust either in local leaders or Beijing itself on the part of the wider electorate.

The events in Taipei began to take shape on March 18 when the students took action against the agreement over claims the agreement would drive up unemployment and invite Chinese infiltration at the expense of Taiwan’s hard-earned democratic system. It became the sunflower revolution when a florist delivered a box of sunflowers in support, and students picked up the idea. Although the students have drawn impressive support from the Taiwanese public, the Taiwan Affairs Office, which deals with Taiwanese matters from the mainland, has remained mum.

“The mainland’s policy on Taiwan enjoys high public approval here [in China] … I hope the Taiwanese society can have a deep understanding of that,” said Ma Xiaoguang, the spokesman for the office.

Reasons for pessimism in Beijing
According to Steve Tsang, director of the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute, the sunflower occupation is making the Chinese government uncomfortable, since it will push back the timetable it has set for closer ties between Taiwan and China, particularly politically.

“The occupation is showing Beijing that the [China-friendly] administration of Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou is unable to deliver its promises,” Tsang said. “The United Front will be sustained, but it is not disarming the people of Taiwan, as reflected by the large margin with which the Taiwanese public felt uncomfortable with the service trade agreement,” Tsang said.

Could the frustrated leaders in Beijing be considering taking their cues from the decisive action by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last week simply annexed the Crimea while western leaders only delivered angry rhetoric? Tsang contents that Putin’s moves and western reactions hardly deliver valuable lessons to Beijing, given that its calculation will have to be a lot more complex and cautious than that made by Putin.

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