Here’s Why Taiwan’s Democracy is at Stake

Taiwan’s controversial trade deal with China resulted in thousands of Taiwanese students occupying the government and is prompting many to review the nature of democracy.


The Taiwan Protests: Regional and Economic Implications. Credit: Reuters/ Pichi Chuang

The failure of representative democracy that was unable to give the voice for the voiceless triggered Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement student protest.

The reason for students to show up and occupy the government is because they saw the irresponsibility of both parties.

Taiwan’s opposition party, the Democratic Progress Party (DPP), has no sufficient power to check and balance Kuomintang (KMT), the current ruling political party which controls congress and the presidency.

While there is no legislation or law backing DPP to veto or censor the agreement signed by the executive, the only option for dissent is taking to the streets, protesting the agreement that President Ma Ying-jeou signed with China while ignoring public discord.

The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (EFCA) is not just about the economic issue. Protesters now worry that the agreement will reinforce Beijing’s influence on the island by seizing crucial industries such as publishing, banking and telecommunication. Taiwan’s loss of these important industries could threaten its security and increase China’s leverage on restricting press freedom.

Although scholars and the government have disputed the ECFA, it was signed on June 29, 2010. On March 18, when KMT arbitrarily passed the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement through undemocratic means and without bipartisan deliberation and legislative review, the society was convulsed by this illegitimate movement.

Following those who camped out in Taiwan’s legislature to protest against KMT’s undemocratic action, some students with other demonstrators stormed into the Executive Yuan trying to get more attention from the government.

Tensions increased by the government’s harsh response using water cannons and other means of force to remove the “mobs,” a term the government used to describe the students. Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement is peaceful and reasonable. What happened in Taiwan is unique because students obey the principles of civil disobedience without using violence to disturb Taiwan’s society.

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Economics are always intertwined with politics. The question if Taiwan wants closer economic ties with China will ultimately lead Taiwanese to review the pros and cons of unification with China or being independent.

This kind of social crisis would definitely continue due to the problematic nature of democracy. The imbroglio nature of Taiwanese society will also inflame the upheaval because there is no consensus on the issue of national identity among the Taiwanese people. Only when we figure out how to solve these problems, the social crisis could be reduced in the future.

What is happening now in the movement is that protesters need more support from the international community as well as domestic associations from industrial and commerce. Because a movement cannot sustain itself only under the mobilization of students, more attention is required from various Taiwanese organizations.

Students have to take this movement as a starting point to encourage other groups to pay more attentions to the social, economic and political issues that related to China – otherwise Taiwan will have only one type of future.

Hsiang-en Huang is pursuing a Master’s degree in the Department of Politics at New York University with a concentration in International Affairs.

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  • Nathan W. Novak

    This is generally good, although I think what most observers who are currently outside Taiwan tend to miss (and this is no fault of their own but, rather, the biased and skewed reporting in Western, and particularly American, media) are the domestic causes of this unrest. By domestic I mean social and domestic economic issues; issues of justice; issues of property rights; constitutional and other political, governmental, and state institutional issues; and so forth. These things tend not to be covered very well even in local media simply because the media here jumps from one issue to the next without following up. Those who are interested in the domestic issues playing a major role in these disputes should consult the following blog (in English): True, the Sunflower Movement never would have occurred if this agreement were with anyone but China, but if the public had had any form of confidence in the Ma Ying-jeou government prior to its ramming the CSSTA through the legislature via party (and not governmental or state/constitutional means), the Sunflower Movement would also never have taken place. I’ve also commented on these issues (here:, but the first URL is far more thorough, treating each of these domestic and international causes in their own right.