A protester holds a banner depicting Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou as Hitler while shouting slogans denouncing the controversial China Taiwan trade pact during a massive protest in front of the Presidential Building in Taipei, Taiwan, last month. Pic: AP.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Taiwan’s president is sticking by a trade pact with China that has sparked mass protests and a three-week occupation of the self-governing island legislature building by students.

The protest, that has at times drawn hundreds of thousands of people, is the most serious challenge yet to President Ma Ying-jeou’s policy of moving democratic Taiwan economically closer to China.

Ma said students will start leaving the assembly hall Thursday.

Ma said there needs to be more public education on the benefits of the services industry pact.

He said it would enable Taiwan to expand service exports and demonstrate Taiwan’s readiness to open its markets so it can integrate more into the regional economy.

Ma was speaking Wednesday by webcast to a Washington think tank.