INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
China trade roils Taiwanese students
, April 12, 2014
When Taiwan suffers one of its all too frequent regressions into “government by mass action”, we are reminded that the Republic of China (i.e.,Taiwan) is still a “young democracy”.
When, on March 18, a group of students occupied the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s single-chamber parliament, it simply confirmed that, as far as governance is concerned, Taiwan’s politics are immature rather than young.
The students were protesting about an agreement that had been negotiated with mainland China to open up cross-strait trade in services.
At the time of writing this article, nothing to date, it seems, can shift the students short of dropping the agreement or their removal by force.
Taiwan is desperately signing trade pacts with its trading partners all over the world. In doing so, it is emulating South Korea, which has long been negotiating similar pacts, including with Australia.
To give an idea what a trade pact with South Korea involves, Australia’s beef now enters South Korea duty-free, while South Korea’s cars now enter Australia duty-free. South Korea’s economy is powering ahead, while Taiwan has been stagnating with growth of around 2 per cent. Pay for graduates in Taiwan is derisory, and over 30,000 young Taiwanese are in Australia on working holiday visas.
Blaming the young for Taiwan’s problems would be far from fair. The island’s young people are cheerful and hard working. In Australia they do the jobs Australians won’t do, such as fruit-picking and meat-packing. The minimum wage in Taiwan is about $4 an hour, compared to $17 in Australia. No wonder they feel frustrated and ignored in their homeland.
Taiwan boasts around 150 universities, so called. Most are equivalent to our TAFE colleges, but their graduates are convinced they hold university degrees.
China is the logical trade partner for Taiwan. Some one million Taiwanese, mostly business people, currently live in mainland China. They have provided the managerial expertise for China’s takeoff in manufacturing industry, mainly in the coastal provinces of south China.
Many residents of Taiwan, however, remain highly suspicious of China, particularly when it comes to the Chinese taking jobs from Taiwanese. President Ma Ying-jeou is widely held to have failed Taiwan when it comes to economic growth. With his popularity rating bumping along the bottom at around 10 per cent, he does not have a lot of political capital available when it comes to influencing the Legislative Yuan.
Many of Taiwan’s problems arise from its system of government. Dr Sun Yat-sen, founder of modern China, devised a system of government appropriate for governing a huge country, not a small island like Taiwan. Taiwan has five yuans (i.e., branches or courts of government), the two chief ones being the Executive Yuan, or Cabinet, and the Legislative Yuan, or Parliament.
The problem with the legislature, being unicameral, is that there is no house of review. When the party out of power wants to review legislation, it conducts a filibuster. The current opposition is the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which, when it comes to using violence to halt legislation “has form”.
Taiwan is desperate to strengthen its international relationships, but it is not always supported by the business community. Part of the services trade pact with China, for example, would open up Taiwan further to overseas banking. The local banks don’t like that, as it would loosen their hold on the financial services sector.
For many years the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei (AmCham) has been promoting the opening of the financial services sector, with limited success. Taiwan recently signed a free-trade pact with New Zealand, which will improve Taiwanese consumers’ access to a whole range of goods, including dairy products.
In the wake of its achievement of observer status at the World Health Organisation (WHO), Taiwan is making progress with its application to join the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Its next bid will be for observer status at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Taipei’s diplomatic “truce” with Beijing has opened up some diplomatic space, though Taipei is likely to have been disappointed with the lack of concrete results so far.
Taiwan is a small island, surrounded by highly competitive neighbours who wield far greater diplomatic clout. Its governing elite may be convinced that cross-strait trade agreements are the way to ensure their nation’s economic future, but the average person will require some convincing.
The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is suspected of pulling strings in the student protest movement’s occupation of parliament, though DPP heavyweight and former party chairwoman Ms Tsai Ing-wen has denied any involvement with the student protesters.
The DPP uses rough-house tactics far more frequently than President Ma’s Kuomintang (KMT). The DPP is strong in southern Taiwan, particularly among farmers, who are cautious about making things easier for outsiders. President Ma’s KMT government won’t win friends if it ramrods the China services agreement through parliament. It is a case of winning by persuasion.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who for many years worked as a journalist in Taiwan.