- - Monday, April 28, 2014

The recent controversy in Taiwan caused by student protests over the country’s economic future appears to have subsided.

Students illegally occupied the chamber of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, on March 18, in protest against an alleged “black-box operation” for a trade-in-services pact with mainland China that was to undergo legislative review. They withdrew from the legislative premises on the evening of April 10, as most of their reasonable requests were met or seriously addressed.

The peaceful resolution of this tumultuous protest shows once again the maturity and resiliency of democracy in the Republic of China on Taiwan.

However, the so-called “black-box” assertion made by the students during their occupation of the legislative facility ignores the following facts. Actually, before the agreement was signed on June 21, the executive branch of the government held 110 forums with 46 service-sector associations and reported to the Legislative Yuan three times.

After the pact was signed, 144 explanatory meetings attended by about 7,900 people were organized by the administration, and the Legislative Yuan itself held 20 public hearings with industry representatives, scholars and experts.

Such extensive public exposure of an agreement is unprecedented in Taiwan’s legislative history. There was ample opportunity to express different opinions prior to the start of legislative review.

Unfortunately, a chaotic legislative process at the committee level triggered mass protests and the students’ radical reactions. However, the committee’s markup of the pact that day was already considered null and void by the legislature’s official record with a short statement that “the session turned into chaos” without any affirmative conclusion.

As a matter of fact, the government negotiated the trade-in-services pact with mainland China to boost Taiwan’s economic competitiveness, enhance its integration into the regional economy, and prevent it from being further marginalized.

The service sector accounts for 70 percent of Taiwan’s gross domestic product. The agreement is expected to create about 12,000 jobs in Taiwan, while increasing services exports to mainland China by 37 percent, or $394 million. This is clearly an opportunity for, and not a threat to, Taiwan’s economy.

The protesting students and some opposition politicians claim that the trade agreement could be used by mainland China to control Taiwan. Such fears are unfounded.

We can only grow Taiwan’s economy by engaging with all our regional partners, both big and small, not by maintaining unnecessary economic barriers against some to shield ourselves against competition. Reluctance to further integrate Taiwan into the regional economy will leave us further marginalized. That is not in the best interest of the people of Taiwan.

In the context of the current controversy, some critics have alleged that Taiwan’s freedom and democracy have regressed over the past six years. The nongovernmental organization Freedom House, though, has called Taiwan one of the freest countries in Asia, giving it high scores in both political rights and civil liberties in the same period. The U.S. State Department has also given Taiwan positive reviews with regard to personal freedom, freedom of speech and press, and civil and political rights.

In a democracy like Taiwan‘s, consensus across the spectrum of public opinion can be very difficult to reach, especially on any matter involving cross-strait relations. It is up to the elected representatives of all the people in Taiwan, not a group of self-designated students without electoral mandates, to determine the fate of the services agreement and other issues pertaining to the country’s future through the lawful means set out in our constitution, and relevant laws and regulations.

Nevertheless, the students’ voices deserve to be heard, and have been heard all along, loud and clear, by both the government and the people of Taiwan.

Lyushun Shen is the representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States.