Taiwan Protesters Call For Ban on Secret Deals With Beijing at Sunflower Rally

china-taiwan-legislative-yuan-rally-march-2015.jpg Protesters rally outside the Legislative Yuan in Taipei, March 18, 2015.

Demonstrators in Taiwan on Wednesday staged a public rally to mark the first anniversary of their "Sunflower Movement" occupation of parliamentary buildings in protest over proposed closer trade ties with mainland China and amid fears of Beijing's growing influence in the island's political life.

Hundreds of mostly student protesters rallied outside the Legislative Yuan in downtown Taipei, calling on Taiwan's nationalist Kuomintang (KMT)-led government not to sign any deals with Beijing ahead of presidential elections in 2016.

The anniversary comes amid fears that China is seeking to extend its soft power and economic influence in Taiwan in the wake of the movement, which occupied executive and legislative government buildings for several weeks in March 2014.

Activists are now demanding legislation to prevent any more deals being struck with China in secret, in particular ahead of next year's presidential elections in Taiwan. By law, KMT President Ma Ying-jeou is not permitted to run for a third term.

Rally spokesman Lai Chung-chiang told the crowd that the law should be passed by the end of this year.

"This law would be aimed at preventing Ma from selling out Taiwan's interests to China," Lai said as he addressed the crowd.

Presidential spokesman Charles Chen said the government was willing to listen to opinions from all sectors of society.

"We have an open-minded attitude to dialogue with civil society groups," Chen told reporters. "President Ma himself took part in a student movement when he was young."

But he added: "Young people should carry out their movements in a rational and peaceful manner."

Occupation protest

Protesters who occupied the government's administrative headquarters, the Executive Yuan, on March 23, 2014 were evicted the next day following clashes with more than 1,000 riot police who deployed water cannon and baton charges against them, despite their lack of resistance.

Former student leader Chen Wei-ting said on Wednesday that the students' presentation of the second occupation as spontaneous and unconnected to the legislature protest had been a mistake.

"The tacit agreement we had at the time was that we would present the two occupations as separate, independent protests, but this has since been seen as a harmful decision," Chen told RFA at the anniversary rally.

"We think that this decision was overly naive and wrong," Chen said. "Our verdict on the Executive Yuan incident is that we didn't think it through carefully enough."

Six months later, the Sunflower Movement was followed by the student-led Occupy Central pro-democracy in Hong Kong, which brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets at its height, as part of a campaign for fully democratic elections in 2017.

Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement occupied major highways for more than two months, but ultimately failed to move Beijing over popular demands for fully democratic elections in 2017.

The former British colony, where China-linked business interests can be threatened by a pro-democracy stance, is often cited by Taiwanese activists as an example of the potential loss of freedoms of expression, self-determination and a democratic future under Beijing's influence, however indirect.

Upcoming election

Since his election in 2008, KMT President Ma Ying-jeou has ushered in a period of relative detente with Beijing following decades of mutual suspicion and hostility, sparking a boom in tourism from the communist mainland.

But the KMT suffered a resounding defeat in local and city elections last December, in what was widely seen as a backlash against the government's refusal to take the Sunflower Movement seriously.

A recent opinion poll showed the party's potential presidential candidates trailing opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leader Tsai Ing-wen by at least 16 percentage points.

Tsai's presidential candidacy was considered "better for Taiwan" by a margin of 29 percentage points than that of current KMT chairman Eric Chu, the poll showed.

Chu told reporters on Wednesday that the Sunflower Movement was the result of "uneven economic interests" in the cross-straits services agreement.

"The question of what motivated these young people, what they care about, is the most important question for us in the KMT right now," Chu said.

"It is the question of whether or not the fruits of cross-straits cooperation will be unevenly distributed, especially across the generations."

Chu's analysis echoed comments from Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing last week, who called for greater cross-straits ties between younger people.

At the same time, Li renewed China's ruling Communist Party's opposition to any formal independence for the democratic island, which has been governed separately from the mainland since 1949.

Island autonomy

Beijing has considered Taiwan a renegade province awaiting reunification since defeated KMT troops fled to Taiwan in 1949 after losing the civil war to Mao Zedong's Soviet-backed communists on the mainland.

China has said it won't rule out the use of force, should the island take steps towards further autonomy, one of the key policy aims of the pan-green opposition camp, which includes the DPP.

Political commentators said the Sunflower Movement reveals public fears over maintaining the island's unique identity in the face of lingering wartime rhetoric from Beijing.

"The movement has ... demonstrated that Taiwanese youth are not persuaded by China's 'great nation' framework," Wu Hung-chang, postdoctoral researcher at Academia Sinica's Institute of Sociology, told a recent symposium in Taipei.

"The Sunflower movement can be seen as a statement ... that Taiwanese will not be fooled by the attempts [of China's Communist Party and the KMT] to label the cross-strait relationship with Chinese Civil War rhetoric," the English-language Taipei Times newspaper quoted Wu as saying.

Reported by Lee Tung for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chung Kuang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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