In the biggest student-led protest in Taiwan’s history, an estimated 10,000 people have surrounded government buildings in Taipei in opposition to an impending trade deal with mainland China. The movement began spontaneously, when hundreds of protestors seized control of Taiwan’s main legislative building last Tuesday night. On Sunday evening the clashes escalated, with several dozen people injured in skirmishes between police and activists who had stormed the Executive Yuan, which houses the Cabinet.
Yet when I visited the protests on Saturday, I was struck by the extraordinary civility and peacefulness on display. The students, professors and other supporters sat in neat rows in the streets flanking the occupied legislative building. Many attendees carried sunflowers, a salute to the event’s nickname, the Sunflower Movement.
Protestors here are objecting to a move by Taiwan’s leading party to skip an itemized review of the trade agreement, as had been promised. The new pact would open up Taiwan’s service sector to Chinese investment, raising fears that the mainland will increase its leverage over the island. Businesses in the service sector make up almost 70 percent of Taiwan’s economy. Some protestors oppose the pact entirely, whereas others object to the way the government is pushing it forward without a public review.
The deal comes on the heels of a half-decade of warming relations between the Taiwanese government and mainland China. Only in 2008 did Taiwan begin to allow direct travel, trade and postal connections with China. Previously, all such links were routed through a third party, often Hong Kong. To get just a taste of Taiwan’s historically fierce protection of its sovereignty from China, consider that it only permits ten mainland films to be released in the island per year, a quota applied exclusively to its neighbor across the strait. This trade agreement will likely increase that figure.
On Saturday, the thousands upon thousands of young Taiwanese people sitting in the streets were quiet and friendly. Volunteers amiably but firmly kept walkways clear around the site. Upon exiting a port-a-potty, you could expect to find a volunteer offering to pour bottled water over your hands. Nearby businesses offered free snacks.
Protesters who had entered the legislative building were sitting on its roof and peering out its windows. Police maintained a very low profile—the most visible presence was at the Executive Yuan, around the corner, where several tiers of barbed wire stood between the police and pedestrians. Thorny fencing also guarded parts of the legislative building, but to less effect. Here, protestors had wrapped cushioning around the sharp edges and tucked sunflowers between its wires.