Ma Ying-jeou is going through a bad patch. In fact, his approval ratings slipped to an all-time low of about 9% at the end of last year. The Taiwanese president is so unpopular that he is scoring lower than former leader Chen Shui-bian, who avoided single-digit ratings even in the aftermath of a corruption scandal (Chen is currently serving a 20-year prison term).
Last week Ma faced his biggest challenge since he took office in 2008 when hundreds of student protesters stormed the government’s headquarters in Taipei demanding the scrapping of a controversial trade pact with Beijing. The takeover spilled over into a separate cabinet compound on Sunday and riot police had to disperse demonstrators with water cannon. The clashes injured more than 100 people and about 60 demonstrators were arrested.
Taiwan and China signed the pact last June to open up a wide range of service industries to cross-strait investment. But in Taiwan the deal has raised concerns that local businesses will suffer and that the island will fall further under Chinese influence. Investments in sectors linked to press freedoms such as publishing and advertising have been a focal point for opponents of the deal.
A promised review of the pact has been delayed. But the governing party, the KMT (the Kuomintang) tried to move things forward this month by pushing it through without fuller study, a move that prompted protest from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Why? It was previously agreed that legislators would look (once again) at the deal line-by-line (although the KMT’s majority in the legislature means it should be able to ratify the pact despite opposition). Many of the demonstrators chafed at KMT’s fast-tracking of the process, calling it “authoritarian” and “operating out of a black box”. An editorial in the Taipei Times even warned of tactics “reminiscent of the old days of the Martial Law era and the White Terror of 1947 to 1987”.
Ma has made significant headway in improving ties with Beijing during his time in office and he has defended the deal stoutly. “Regional economic integration is an unstoppable global trend. If we do not face this and join in the process, it will only be a matter of time before we are eliminated from the competition. For the sake of the nation’s development, we truly have no choice,” he claims. His supporters argue that the arrangements are favourable to Taiwan. Under the agreement, the island has to open up 64 sectors to Chinese companies, while China has to make 80 available to Taiwan. In addition, the Taiwanese have reserved the right to apply further restrictions in future.
“In essence, Beijing made Taiwan a special deal that other countries would kill to get,” says the Business Spectator.
China’s Global Times thinks that the Taiwanese should be showing a bit more gratitude. “Everyone can tell that we let Taiwan take advantage with this trade pact… if Taiwan doesn’t approve the deal, it’s not a big deal we are not going to be too distressed,” it suggests.
But the People’s Daily changed tack, accusing pro-independence politicians of distorting the deal to stoke anti-China sentiment. “Many people hope that the students will look at the situation rationally and not be exploited and manipulated by a certain political party,” it warned.
Some of the negative sentiment towards the pact reflects deeper-rooted anxiety in Taiwan. “Most of their fears seem to be less directly related to the economics of the pact,” Christopher Balding, an economics professor at the Peking University HSBC School of Business, told the South China Morning Post. “There is this fear in Taiwan that they are being quietly annexed by China.”
But Beijing’s spokesman at the Taiwan Affairs Office also defended the deal. “From the mainland’s perspective, the trade service pact is well-drafted and mutually beneficial,” he insisted.
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