The 24-day student occupation of Taiwan’s parliament has put a brake on the rapid improvements to cross-strait ties. Relations between Beijing and Taipei have warmed considerably since President Ma Ying-jeou’s election in 2008 but Ma’s pro-Beijing economic policies have failed to revive the island’s embattled economy, to the point where the younger generation do not see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The students ended their occupation Thursday but now plan to turn the so-called Sunflower Movement into a cross-island effort to raise public awareness of the proposed Taiwan-China service trade agreement. Opponents say the treaty is unequal because it relies on Taiwan opening its market in a wide range of service sectors to China investment and preferential access. These markets have traditionally been dominated by local entrepreneurs and include commerce, telecommunications, construction, distribution, environment, health, tourism, entertainment, culture, sports, transport and finance.
Ma’s administration insists the service pact is essential for Taiwan’s future economic development, and without it the island will be isolated from the world’s biggest market. But the students and some academics argue that the government has not done enough to protect the local economy, threatening the local way of doing businesses and the broader domestic economy.
The Ma government has long sought to use better ties with Beijing to tap into the mainland’s strong growth to improve the island’s economy. But many Taiwan businesses have shifted operations across the strait in the past two decades to lower costs, hollowing out the island’s manufacturing industry and shrinking job opportunities for young people.
The service trade pact will make it even easier for more big Taiwan-based firms to invest in and profit from the mainland, possibly widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
Ma’s cross-strait approach has a lot of support from big business because of the commercial benefits that flow from it. But many local businesspeople and those lower down on the economic ladder maintain that Ma does not protect their interests. This discontent could translate into support for the pro-Taiwan Democratic Progressive Party in November’s local government and mayoral elections.
Taiwan’s economy grew just 2.19 percent last year, a rate that would rise with more mainland investment in Taiwan, according to the island’s government. But many people in Taiwan fear that too much mainland involvement in the economy could put their Taiwan status at risk. They also point out that Beijing has still not ruled out using military force to reunify Taiwan with China.
Beijing is restructuring its economy and so the high economic growth of the past decade might not be sustained. It could be too risky for Taiwan to put all its eggs in the one basket by relying on the mainland to save Taiwan’s economy.
The Sunflower Movement reflects the younger generation’s refusal to adopt a China-only economic policy and their desire to retain Taiwan’s independent identity. The government should reassess its proactive policy on the mainland and listen to the public. If it does, it will hear that most people on the island want to retain their local style of business to drive domestic consumption, rather than embrace the China growth story.
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