Occupation ends, students celebrate political impact

The student occupation of Taiwan's legislative building in protest against a trade-in-services agreement with China ended peacefully last week after mediation by the legislature's speaker. But the protests, dubbed the 'sunflower movement', could continue outside the building if student demands are not met.

Students, who first occupied the legislative chamber on 18 March, started leaving on 10 April.

Last Tuesday student leader Chen Wei-ling called on "all protest supporters to gather at the legislature on Thursday...to leave parliament with us". He said students in the chamber had decided to call a halt to the protest so that it did not alienate the majority.

Other students said they had successfully shown that students could have significant impact on the political process.

During the occupation, students took centre stage in the political debate on the China pact, undermining the standing of both the ruling Kuomintang Party, or KMT, and opposition Democratic Progressive Party.

Representatives of the Association of National Universities of Taiwan - including the presidents of National Taiwan University, Sun Yat-sen University, National Chiao Tung University, Chung Hsing University and Cheng Kung University - urged students to end the protest and return to classes.

Huge student support

In a bid to gain broader student support Economics Minister Chang Chia-juch and government officials toured major universities this week to explain the importance of the pact with mainland China, at specially convened forums at National Tsing Hua University and National Chiao Tung University.

The urgency of bringing students on board increased as the occupation became protracted, and student groups were able to mobilise huge rallies outside the building. It is estimated that the rallies attracted more than half a million supporters to the student cause over the period.

A separate group of students stormed government offices amid violent clashes with police on 24 March.

The tour of universities was also a recognition by ministries that the battle over the pact may not be over once students leave the legislature.

Analysts said their success in blocking an unpopular but politically significant pact with China could continue to have wider repercussions on the weakened political establishment, which now needs to assert control.


Legislative speaker Wang Jin-pyng, who has the sole authority to call police into the legislature to clear the occupation but had all along declined to do so - appeared in the legislature to talk to the students for the first time on 6 April.

At a press conference afterwards, Wang said he had promised the students he would press for a bill to be enacted to oversee and monitor the trade-in-services pact with China - the issue that sparked the three-week student sit-in, paralysing all legislative business.

Student leader Chen described the concession as a "small, initial victory" and added that students would continue their efforts as part of broader Taiwan society.

The group of over 100 students - occasionally swelling to almost 200 - that occupied the legislature protested that the pact was negotiated in secret and that the ruling party had attempted to ram it through parliament.

Students and opposition politicians fear that the pact with China could lead to a rise in unemployment in Taiwan as a result of huge mainland businesses pushing out smaller Taiwanese companies.

Scrutiny measures

Wang promised students that the controversial agreement with China would be neither reviewed nor ratified until a new bill was passed by the legislature enabling pacts with Beijing to come under greater scrutiny.

President Ma Ying-jeou had said in an earlier press conference that such scrutiny measures "would subject all agreements [with China] to thorough oversight both before and after their signing".

However, at the time Ma had rejected the protesters' demand that the legislative process be halted until such an oversight mechanism was legalised, Taiwan's official China News Agency reported.

Wang's promise, which appeared to contradict Ma - the two are bitter rivals within the ruling party - eventually led to agreement with students to depart from the chamber.

Officials of the ruling KMT party continue to argue that an oversight law would make it difficult to pass future agreements with the mainland, and could delay the ratification of the trade pact indefinitely.

On 2 April the cabinet rushed through approval of draft legislation on a "Statute for the Processing and Monitoring of Agreements between the Taiwan Area and Mainland Area" to be sent to the legislature, which allows for public hearings for such pacts.

Other versions of the oversight bill have been drafted by the Democratic Progressive Party, which supports the student activist view, and at least six other legislators have also drafted their own versions.

'Deliberative democracy'

Students said at least 10 versions had been discussed in special meetings of students within the legislature, with briefings from law professors to explain the differences.

Student leader Lin Fei-fan said the discussion meetings were an "innovation". Students were not seeking to replace elected lawmakers, but this new form of 'deliberative democracy' had become necessary because the existing representative system had "failed to keep executive power in check".

On 7 April Education Minister Chiang Wei-ling told the legislature's education committee that no punitive action would be taken by universities against students, although they can still face charges - mainly relating to the storming of government offices.

Professors and heads of many universities have supported the students. In a statement this week as police summoned dozens of students for questioning after the protest was expanded outside the legislature, the university presidents called for leniency in dealing with students.

Some KMT lawmakers fear lasting damage.

The KMT could have difficulty attracting the crucial youth vote in future, as the party image has been tarnished in the eyes of students, the official China News Agency reported. The party had shown itself to have little leverage with students during the crisis, legislators said.

The current legislative session was scheduled to run until the end of May, but could be extended. Wang said the three-week sit-in had delayed the consideration of some 2,800 bills and parliamentary motions.