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“Crystallize” by Lindsey Stirling (lindseystirling.com)
Taiwan officials are conceding they didn’t grasp one of the island’s most incisive political protests, the 24-day occupation of parliament. Protest leaders say the occupation by hundreds of students and sympathizers will end Thursday following a pledge by the legislative speaker to pass an oversight law before discussing a contested service trade agreement with China. That decision offers relief to President Ma Ying-jeou, who has made a name since taking office since 2008 by signing trade and investment pacts with Beijing, an old political enemy but a valuable economic partner. The trade deal still stands, and for now the threat of more mass protests is off. But Ma’s cabinet is not celebrating. Too often his government has botched public relations over divisive issues. And something similar to occupation will happen again, cabinet spokesman Sun Lih-chyun told a news conference Tuesday. He says the government needs to get ready.
The government wasn’t ready for occupation, Sun admits. Officials didn’t get at first that protesters were worried about their personal futures, fearful of China and panicked overall, Sun says. On paper the student-led protesters had asked for redoing the trade pact, which would liberalize 144 service sector categories, because they found it was moving through the approval process too fast. But by the time the occupation had spread to a break-in of cabinet offices and a 300,000-strong street demonstration last month, details of the trade agreement approval process faded as just the first act in a long drama of protest causes. “This is absolutely not the last time, since this situation could happen again, so we need to do a review,” Sun says. “In the beginning we didn’t see the source of the issue too clearly.”
Once they saw it, he said, it was too late. Government responses, such as meeting protesters to defend the trade accord based on economic need, didn’t register. Protesters say China wants to exert more control over self-ruled Taiwan en route to reunification someday, so two-way pacts should be negotiated more openly. Negotiators from Taipei and Beijing signed the service trade deal in June. It sparked the break-in and occupation of parliament in downtown Taipei late one Tuesday night when legislators were about to ratify the pact without a line-by-line vote that would allow axing clauses harmful to Taiwan. Officials got some of their points across in newspapers, but not in mobile social media where the mostly 20-some protesters were exchanging info (including admission to trespassing). Despite time and energy spent earlier to publicize the trade agreement, Sun says that “obviously we underestimated. This time there was an underestimation and also we didn’t grasp the reality.”
That self-criticism may cool anger in the short term, but it supports a long-standing perception that to date Ma’s government reacts weakly to PR crises, a hurdle in the ruling Nationalist Party’s election campaigns this year and in 2016. There was the delayed response to a deadly 2009 typhoon and perceived inaction after a 24-year-old army conscript died last year from heat stroke during confinement. In the words of veteran Taiwan political analyst Lin Chong-pin, the occupation of parliament can also be grasped as a “result of accumulated frustration.”
I’m not convinced the government “sees” it. They haven’t seen it for the past two years. Will changes be made? One can hope and continue to fight.
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